When it comes to parenting milestones, hearing your child’s first words comes top of the list for many. Whilst many children utter these at around 12-18 months, others may take much longer. Some of these are simply late talkers, whilst others may have conditions that cause speech and communication problems, like verbal dyspraxia (a speech sound disorder that can make it difficult to produce speech) and autism.
Either way, speech delay in young children is actually pretty common: with research showing the number of children needing help from speech therapists at school rose 10% last year. And in every classroom across the country, 2 or 3 children will have language difficulties.
With the right support, the majority of these children do catch up with their peers. Yet lots of parents are finding that accessing this is almost impossible.
One of these is Nicola, whose son Archie* (name changed) is 4 next month and starts school in September. Yet despite asking for help in August 2021 when she noticed her son’s delay, she’s yet to have received any.
“We were referred in August 2021, and finally received our 30 minute assessment almost a year later.
It took another six months to hear anything more and by then, he was then offered 5 hours of group therapy classes, 18 months after our initial referral.”
Nicola said she’d need to speak to her employer to move her working week to take him to the class, as it was on the day he attended nursery, but her place was then taken away. A year later, she’s still on the waitlist. “I just don’t know what to do anymore! In all honesty, I’m starting to give up and try my best at home” she adds.
Katie’s son Oliver also starts school in September. Whilst he’s able to label things, he can’t answer questions or ask for help, something which worries her about him being in a classroom setting.
“I first took him to the health visitor a year and half ago and, four months later, we were invited to a zoom session which lasted 15 minutes. A year later, we were then invited to yet another zoom. We’re also waiting to see a pediatrician, but they just tell me they’re working through the list too!”
Shockingly, others don’t even get as far as making the list, after being told they don’t meet the threshold. “My son Ashton is 4 and is autistic and pre-verbal,” explainsmum influencer Aimee, who uses her platform to raise awareness of life as a SEN family. “I couldn’t believe it when they said he didn’t meet the threshold as his baseline scores were too low to be offered therapy. They said he didn’t have eye contact and shared attention to help him, so it was left to me to do speech therapy on my own,” she adds.
But why is it that these parents can’t access the help their children need?
It’s worth remembering that many of September’s school starters have spent parts of their lives in lockdown, with research showing children born in the pandemic are more likely to have developmental delays.
During the pandemic, there were also reduced services with redeployment of therapists and health visitors. These have all contributed to a huge backlog: with the NHS estimating last year that 900,000 adults and children were waiting for services.
“In health visiting, we have always come across lots of children with speech and language delays. Before COVID waiting list were already long but the numbers rose significantly post-covid. Due to lockdown, a number of development reviews were missed which would have highlighted any concerns, and children were not getting the same interaction whilst being at home, which has had a massive impact,” says Danielle Maynard, a health visitor and founder of Serenity for Girls.
As demand skyrockets, many speech therapists have also exited the profession. According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, there are an alarming number of speech therapists vacancies. Almost 1 in 4 positions, in fact.
Karen Massey has been a speech therapist for over 15 years, with a particular interest in supporting children with autism and verbal dyspraxia. She finally quit working for the NHS last year. “It got to a point where the resources, in terms of staff and numbers of hours we could offer, just got eroded. Referrals increased into the service but at the same time, our human resources decreased. It became so hard-your time is so strapped with admin and the little bit of therapy you can actually do.”
Karen went on to run her own speech therapy clinic, All About Speech Therapy and says she can help so many more families this way.
“Now as a private therapist, I love how I can offer more dedicated support that parents are crying out for. I know not everyone can afford this but it has actually freed up my time to actually offer free resources, something I couldn’t do before.”
Joanne Jones is another. She left the NHS in 2018 and set up The Can-Do Bootcamp, an online community for parents of late talkers who are in limbo waiting for NHS support.
“When I saw parents on the NHS, they were waiting for so long and were so fed up. Yet often we could only do assessments, we didn’t actually have the capacity to offer therapy. I went into the job to make a difference but I wasn’t able to help. I have since set up online and can have more impact. I’ve supported 6000 parents in 34 countries online for free since I began, as well as 600 in my paid programme.” she adds.
But demand has increased so much that even private therapists can be hard to track down for in-person support. “I’ve paid privately but it’s actually so sporadic as they’re so busy and booked up” adds mum Katie.
And, of course, in a cost of living crisis, many can’t afford to pay for the private interventions they desperately need, with therapists up to £100 an hour. One of these is Demi, whose son Alfie has mild-moderate sensorineural hearing loss and global development delay. Alfie will be 3 in August but only has two words and is still waiting on NHS therapy. Demi has been told it could take 18 months before his first session, so she’s turning to crowdfunding to help.
“I can’t just sit here and watch him struggle any more. He is such a smart boy but really struggles with the frustration down to not being able to communicate and will bang his head which is so awful to see. We just can’t afford to pay privately. I would do anything for him but money is so tight.”
For mums like Demi, there are no quick answers.
“It’s reached a crisis point and I can only imagine how hard it is for the professionals in the NHS to find this. I’m seeing families who are waiting longer than ever to see therapists,” explains Jo. Whilst the government has now finally promised to invest in better childcare working families need, it remains to be seen as to whether it will also help prioritise the support of speech therapy that many parents are still waiting for.