I am delighted that the National PTA is highlighting children with special needs this month as part of its “Every Child in Focus” campaign. Both this worthy initiative and the special needs population will undoubtedly benefit from improved awareness and engagement from PTAs nationwide.
Children with communication disorders—difficulty speaking or hearing—are among those who are being brought into focus. This is an important population to recognize as children make up a significant portion of the estimated 40 million Americans who suffer from these disorders. In fact, speech disorders affect 8 to 9 percent of young children, and hearing loss affects two in every 100 children. Many other children are affected by medical or developmental disorders such as autism with associated communication challenges that compromise the quality of life of the child and their family.
Children with communication disorders often find the school setting particularly difficult to maneuver, although it can be a place where these children can thrive given the opportunity. For many, this will be the first time a child is seen by a professional speech-language pathologist or audiologist. (Though the ideal scenario is to identify children with communication disorders before they start school, treatment at any age is beneficial.) The support of other students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the entire school community can make a significant positive difference. Also, school is a place where important information and educational resources about these common disorders can be distributed to parents, through channels such as the PTA.
Unlike most other disorders, communication disorders are reversible and even preventable with early treatment. In my career as a speech-language pathologist, one of the biggest barriers to treatment I have observed is a general lack of awareness of what a communication disorder is and what it means for a child and family. My experience is far from unique. A recent poll by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) of its members found that almost half of our respondents cited lack of awareness as the top barrier to early detection and treatment. A new ASHA public education campaign—Identify the Signs—has been designed to change this. As ASHA’s 2013 president, I have been actively involved in this effort to educate parents about the primary signs of communication disorders and the difference early intervention can make. In general, the earlier treatment begins, the better the results. As added benefits, early treatment usually takes less time to achieve a successful outcome and costs less. These are important messages for parents.
The Identify the Signs campaign offers many resources for parents, educators, and others at http://identifythesigns.org/. They include public service announcements in English and Spanish, lists of signs that parents should be aware of, educational podcasts, and a searchable list of certified providers by geographic area. Local PTAs can play an integral role by helping to inform parents, and we welcome chapters to utilize any of the resources on the website. By better educating parents and the greater public about how to recognize the signs of communication disorders early, for many children, we can prevent unnecessary struggles in the classroom, along with improving their overall quality of life.
Patricia A. Prelock, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the 2013 President of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. She is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, professor of communication sciences and disorders, and professor of pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.