A case for early speech-language assessments of adopted children in the child’s birth language.

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A case for early speech-language assessments of adopted children in the child’s birth language.

Tatyana Elleseff MA CCC-SLP

As more and more research is being published on communication, linguistic abilities, as well as speech and language delay of adopted children, a debate has arisen with regard to the necessity of early assessment of speech and language abilities of newly adopted children. Many medical and related professionals have posed a relevant question: “What is the purpose of performing a speech-language evaluation immediately after arriving in the U.S.?” After all how can you perform an evaluation in English when the child has minimal knowledge of English at the time of arrival? And what about speech and language evaluation conducted in the birth language post arrival? Will it yield any definitive or predictive results given that within a relatively short period (2-6 months depending on which study you look at) the child would have lost the birth language and rapidly gained English? And honestly, can one really translate or adapt a test standardized on English speaking children to the child’s birth language (e.g., Russian) with any hope of reliable results?

The truth is that one definitive answer simply does not exist. It would be erroneous to state that ‘yes’ all newly adopted children need to be assessed within the first week of US arrival or “no” you can wait until the child has been in the country for several months before a reliable assessment can be performed. Here, I think that an individualized and educated approach is necessary in order to determine whether an early speech–language assessment may be appropriate for your newly adopted child.

In order to better explain my position on this issue, I must mention something of my own background and how it affects my approach to speech and language assessments. I am a bilingual, Russian-English, speaking speech language therapist, and I specialize in assessing children adopted from Eastern Europe (vs. South America or China, etc).

I am also in a rather unique position because all internationally adopted children that I’ve evaluated to date have traditionally been referred to me by a medical or a related professional (pediatrician or psychologist vs. a parent who’s contacted me without a specific referral) who felt that the child needed to be seen because of a specific speech or language deficit that was manifesting rather overtly (e.g., significant speech or language delay in birth language).

Since such referrals are frequently made within the child’s first 2 weeks of being in US (e.g., immediately following a visit to the pediatrician), I typically perform the initial speech and language assessment in Russian, using recently published Russian speech language pathology materials, which though are non-standardized (in Russia standardized speech and language protocols haven’t been developed yet) are still more reliable than the standardized tests translated from English. Here, my window of opportunity to assess the child in his/her native language is very narrow, as birth language attrition occurs very rapidly post adoption.

So what do these early speech and language assessments in the child’s birth language reveal to me?

Well, quite a lot actually!

Let’s start by age range:

First let’s talk about children ages 0-3.

Depending on a country, the youngest age children become available for adoption is 7-9 months and depending on length and complexity of the adoption process, may become legally adopted by 12 months of age or older. My first concern with this group (+/-1 – 3 years) is the child’s feeding and swallowing abilities. Difficulties may range from immature feeding skills (e.g., immature chewing abilities) to a more severe failure to thrive, to even structural or functional deviations of the swallow mechanism, which may require detailed imaging tests and subsequent dysphagia therapy. In some rare instances, more serious discoveries were made during those initial speech and language assessments such as presence of vocal webs and submucous clefts, conditions which actually required surgical intervention.

Another concern with this age range are the child’s speech and language abilities or I should say lack of thereof. In the case of younger children (15-18 months), the “red flag” is a complete absence of words, jargon, babbling or general lack of any sound production during both – their early development and the parent bonding pre-adoption period during which the parents intensively interact and communicate with the child. In older children (2.5-3 years of age) the “red flag” is the general absence of phrases and/or words in their birth language, which is a strong indication that assessment is merited.

Finally, with this age group, any form of abnormal social interaction should be thoroughly investigated. Many children who have resided in very deprived institutional environments may present with a pattern of autistic-type behaviors. In reaction to emotional trauma, loss of primary caregiver, isolation in hospital cribs, and lack of stimulation, some children may develop symptoms often found in autistic children and may exhibit limited communicative intent in the absence of speech (make limited gestures, vocalizations, eye contact, etc). As a result, an early speech and language assessment in conjunction with other testing (neurological, psychological, etc) may shed light on whether the child presents with a form of institutional autism or true autistic spectrum behavior.

Unfortunately, internationally adopted children are at high risk for developmental delay because of their exposure to institutional environments. Knowing the above, oftentimes it is important to determine a degree of delay (severe vs. mild), and if it’s not that clear (especially if the child is under 3 years of age and the parents don’t speak the child’s birth language or are not familiar with typical developmental milestones) than a safer choice would be an initial speech and language assessment in the child’s birth language which can determine the type and degree of delay and make recommendations regarding the necessity of further services.

It is also important to highlight that a child’s mastery of the birth language is a good predictor of the rate of learning the new language. Many professionals make an error of assuming that internationally adopted infants and toddlers will not be affected by cross-linguistic interference because the children have just begun to learn the birth language at the time of adoption, before the attrition of birth language occurred. However, due to a complex constellation of factors, language delays in birth language transfer and become language delays in a new language. These delays will typically persist unless appropriate intervention is provided. For older children (3 years +), the delays will be very recognizable and will likely be part of the child’s adoption record but for younger children an early speech and language assessment may be the first step on the way to appropriate language remediation.

Now let’s talk about older children. In our second group, the age range at the time of adoption will range from 3-16 years (although it is important to note that most adopted older children will be in the range of 3-12 years, while adoption of children 12+ is somewhat less common).

Here, most speech and language delays will be more acutely pronounced and as a result far more recognizable. As mentioned above they will also probably be clearly documented in the child’s adoption records. With this age-range there are a number of concerns ranging from poor articulation to language delay to social pragmatic communication impairments.

So how do professionals and parents decide which child merits early assessment?
With regard to articulation, it’s important to keep in mind that if the child is limitedly intelligible in their birth language, they will continue making similar error patterns in English unless they receive appropriate intervention. So assessment is definitely merited.

Similarly, if at the time of adoption, a preschool or school age child presents with delayed language abilities in their birth tongue (e.g., inability to answer “wh” questions, speaking in phrases vs. sentences, etc) then no matter how quickly they will gain basic English proficiency, it is reasonable to expect that similar difficulty will be encountered in English with respect to academically based tasks. In other words they may gain basic skills fairly appropriately but then present with significant deficits acquiring higher level listening and speaking abilities required for long-term academic success.

Another reason why it’s important to assess a child in the birth language in the first few weeks post arrival has to do with their pragmatic language skills or the appropriate use of language. Pragmatic language ability is the ability to appropriately initiate conversations, maintain and terminate topics, appropriately narrate stories, understand jokes and sarcasm, interpret non-verbal body cues, all of which culminate into the child’s general ability to appropriately interact with others in a variety of social settings.

As mentioned above, many children who have resided in deprived institutional environments may present with a pattern of unusual social behaviors, be socially withdrawn, or present with poor ability to socialize with others. Thus, the longer is the period of time the child spends in the institutional environment the greater is the risk of social pragmatic deficits. Unfortunately, this important area of language often receives merely cursory attention.

To illustrate, in recent years I have assessed a number of adopted children, who were 5-7 years post adoption, and had never previously received any speech and language services. Once brought to US they quickly gained English language proficiency and did not seemingly present with any of the “red flags” described above.

The reason these children were referred for intervention so many years later was because “seemingly overnight” they developed numerous difficulties. Oh, they were still getting good grades and presented with adequate vocabulary skills. But both parents and educators were getting concerned that these children were acting very immature for their age, had problems socializing with other children, presented with difficulty understanding figurative language, could not understand non-verbal conversational and social cues, couldn’t coherently express their thoughts, and presented with significant difficulty understanding and retelling stories.

Interestingly, when questioned further, all interviewed parents revealed that the above difficulties had existed from the get-go albeit in a milder form in their child but in the presence of appropriate receptive and expressive skills these difficulties were not deemed worthy of assessment/ intervention. Had these children received early assessment when these problems were first noticed, the outcome (degree of impairment; duration of therapy) might have been entirely different.

Up until now we have discussed the ‘red flags’ which indicate the necessity for early speech and language assessment and intervention of adopted children in their birth language. However, once these children are in therapy, many parents would also like to know if there are any specific predictors for successful language remediation and decreased duration of services?

Unfortunately, it is impossible to answer this question definitively due to the variability of each child’s progress as well as the type and degree of their impairment. Having said that, from my personal clinical experience, what I have found is that if the child has good problem solving abilities (as per non-verbal IQ testing and certain language reasoning tasks) and grossly appropriate social pragmatic language skills, even if the child presents with a moderate-severe speech and language impairment, he/she will generally fare better in treatment with respect to duration of service as well as therapy gains, versus the less severely impaired peers with poorer problem solving and social pragmatic skills.

So, do all newly adopted children require early speech language assessments? Not, at all. However, understanding the “red flags” for each age group will be helpful for both parents and professionals when they make their decision to refer a newly adopted child for a an early speech-language assessment.

As always, if parents or related professionals would like to find more information on this topic, they should visit the ASHA website at www.asha.org and type in their query in the search window located in the upper right corner of the website.

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4 Responses to “A case for early speech-language assessments of adopted children in the child’s birth language.”

  1. megan stephens January 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Hi, Tatyana–
    Great article! Do you happen to have any resources for SLPs regarding typical Russian speech-language development, parent handouts in Russian/English, etc.? And I’m curious what sort of Russian assessments you give your clients. I live in China, but my home state is Oregon, where the Russian population is steadily increasing.

    • telleseff January 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

      Yes Megan I do.
      While currently there are no standardized assessments available for Russian speaking children, we do nevertheless have many informal guidelines with respect to both Russian and bilingual Russian/English language development.
      PS. feel free to email me privately for more information

  2. Alina Solomon October 27, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    Hi Tatyana,
    I really enjoyed your article as well. I emailed you a few minutes ago about the same sort of questions as Megan. I’m a Russian-English EI SLP and am having a hard time finding any resources. If there are any you could share, it would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!!

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