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Younger children increasingly referred to speech therapy in Finland

Every fifth child exhibits some kind of language delay when they are small. Children are starting speech therapy at ever younger ages in Finland in order to address challenges early.

Lapsi tekee puheterapiavihkon tehtäviä.
Speech therapy homework in Finland Image: Hanna Terävä / Yle

The average age of children being referred to speech therapy in Finland is falling, as people are growing increasingly aware of the importance of early detection. Many more children are attending speech therapy now in Finland than in the past.

Professor Sari Kunnari, head of Finland's Child Language Research Centre at the University of Oulu, says the longer that speech therapy is put off, the more likely it is that secondary problems will arise.

"If children have poor means of expressing themselves, they often compensate for it with bad behaviour. Little ones that have trouble with language can easily become ostracized in the company of other children of the same age," Kunnari says

Don't wait until more damage has been done

Problems speaking can also cause children to be teased and may affect learning outcomes later in life.

"If speech therapy starts too late, the child might have already reached the conclusion that he or she can't talk properly and will never learn. Awareness of the difficulty can slow down the therapy exercises," says Heta Piirto, director of the Finnish Association of Speech Therapists.

Of the twenty percent of children who are delayed in speech, Kunnari says the majority are able to catch up with their peers quite quickly. About seven percent are generally estimated to suffer from serious problems with language and expression.

"Among those who exhibit a delay, perhaps only one third will see it continue for a longer period so that it could present a serious linguistic problem," she says.

Study hopes to determine who needs the most help

Kunnari's research group is studying late language emergence among a group of over 60 children in the hopes of identifying connections between children’s different linguistic profiles and later outcomes. Other variables from the child's personality and parental and family background will also be assessed. Special emphasis is put on the child's socio-emotional development and interactive habits.

"We are looking at the children to see whose language skills start to develop rapidly and whose don't, to determine some of the factors behind this. Which variables can explain why some children experience only transient language problems and the language-learning difficulties of others continue once they enter school?" she says.

The objective is for results of the study to help health care personnel working with mothers and young children to be able to better identify the need for speech therapy and other kinds of language development support.

Due to the growing number of referrals, it may take as long as 18 months for a child to finally start meeting with a speech therapist in areas where resources are scarce. Improved diagnosis could help put an end to this problem.

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