Dear Pediatrician: Please Don’t Say That!

Share Button

Untitled

Recently, a new client came in for therapy.  He was a little over three years of age with limited verbal abilities,  and a number of stereotypical behaviors consistent with autism spectrum disorder.  During the course of parental interview, the child’s mother mentioned that he had previously briefly received early intervention services  but  aged out from the early intervention system after only a few months.  As we continued to discuss the case, his mother revealed that she  had significant concerns regarding her son’s language abilities and behavior from a very early age  because it  significantly differed from his older sister’s developmental trajectory. However,  every time she brought it up to her pediatrician  she invariably received the following answers:  “Don’t compare him to his sister, they are different  children”  and   “Don’t  worry,  he will catch up”,  which resulted in the child being referred for early intervention services when he was almost 3 years of age,  and unable to receive consistent  speech therapy services prior to aging out of the program all together.

This is not the first time I heard such a story,  and I’m sure it won’t be the last time as well.  Sadly, myself and other speech language therapists are very familiar with such cases and that is such a shame.  It is a shame, because  a parent was absolutely correct in trusting her instincts but was not validated by a medical professional she trusted the most, her child’s pediatrician.  Please don’t get me wrong,  I am not  playing the blame game  or trying to denigrate members of another profession.   My  aim  today is rather different and that is along with my colleagues to continue increasing awareness among all health professionals  regarding the early identification  of communication disorders  in children in order for them to receive  effective early intervention services  to improve their long-term outcomes.

getty_rf_photo_of_toddler_feeding_teddy_bear

 Whenever one “Googles” the term “Language Milestones In Children”  or “When  do children begin to talk?”   Numerous links pop-up,  describing developmental milestones in children.  Most of them contain  fairly typical information such as: first word emerge at approximately 12 months of age,   2 word combinations emerge when the child has a lexicon of approximately 50 words or more, which corresponds  to  a period between  18 months to 2 years of age,  and sentences emerge when a child is approximately 3 years of age. While most of this information is hopefully common knowledge for many healthcare professionals working with children including pediatricians,  is also important to understand that when the child comes in for a checkup one should not look at these abilities in isolation but  rather  look at the child  holistically.  That means  asking the parents the right questions to compare the child’s cognitive, adaptive,  social emotional, as well as communicative functioning  to that of typically developing peers  or siblings  in order to determine whether anything is amiss.  Thus, rather than to discourage the  parent  from  comparing their child to typically developing children his age, the parents  should actually be routinely asked the variation of the following question: “How  do your child’s abilities  and functioning compare to other typically developing children your child age?”

woman-talking-to-doctorWhenever I ask this question during the process of evaluation or initiation of therapy  services,  90% of the time I receive highly detailed and intuitive responses  from well-informed parents. They immediately begin describing in significant detail the difference in functioning  between their own delayed child  and  his/her  siblings/peers.   That is why in the majority of cases  I find the background information provided by the parent to be almost as valuable  as the evaluation itself.  For example, I recently assessed  a 3-5 year-old child  due to communication concerns.   The pediatrician was very reluctant to refer to the child for services due to the fact that the child was adequately verbal.   However,  the child’s  parents were insistent,  a script for services was written, and the child was brought to me for an evaluation.  Parents reported that while their child was very verbal and outgoing,  most of the time they had significant difficulty  understanding what she was trying to tell them due to poor grammar as well as nonsensical content of her messages.   They also reported that the child had a brother , who was older than her last several years.  However,  they stated that they had never experienced similar difficulties with the child’s brother when he was her age,  which is why they became so concerned with each passing day regarding the child’s language abilities.

Indeed, almost  as soon as the evaluation began, it became apparent that while the child’s verbal output was adequate, the semantic content of those messages  as well as the pragmatic use in conversational exchanges  was significantly impaired. In  other words,  the  child may have been adequately verbose but  the coherence of her discourse left a lot to be desired.   This child was the perfect candidate for therapy but had parents not insisted, the extent of her expressive language difficulties  may have been overlooked until she was old enough to go to kindergarten. By then  many valuable intervention  hours would have been lost  and the extent of the child deficits have been far greater.

So dear pediatrician,  the next time  a concerned parent utters the words: “I think something is wrong…” or “His language is nothing like his brother’s/sister’s when s/he was that age” don’t be so hasty in dismissing their concerns. Listen to them,  understand that while you are the expert in childhood health and diseases,   they are  the expert  in their own child,  and are highly attuned  to their child’s functioning and overall abilities. Encourage them to disclose their worries by asking follow-up questions and validating their concerns.

why_your_doctor_needs_to_know_your_life_story_4461_98044748There are significant benefits  to receiving early targeted  care  beyond the improvement in language abilities.  These include but are not limited to:  reduced chances of behavioral deficits or mental illness, reduced chances of reading, writing and learning difficulties  when older,  reduced chances of  impaired socialization abilities and self-esteem,  all of which can affect children with language deficits when appropriate services are delayed or never provided.  So please, err on the side of caution  and refer the children with suspected deficits to speech language pathologists.  Please give us an opportunity to thoroughly assess these children in order to find out  whether there truly is  speech/language disorder/delay.  Because by doing this you truly will be serving the interests of your clients.

Helpful Smart Speech Therapy Resources:

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

UA-26521237-3