Lost for words? Don’t worry, speech therapy will help find them

Ever wondered how many different words are stored in a human brain? For most English-speaking adults it’s around 40,000, so it’s no surprise we occasionally struggle to find the right one.

All of us have word lapses but a conversation usually happens without a second’s thought.

However, for millions of people affected by stroke, dementia, autism, Down’s syndrome, motor neurone disease, cerebral palsy, brain injuries and speech disorders, words often don’t come easy.

Speech Pathology Week (23-29 August) is an opportunity to acknowledge the work of speech pathologists and highlight the difference they can make to people with communication impairments.

UniSA Speech Pathology Professor Maria Kambanaros says the community is often not aware of the breadth of health, physical and psychological conditions that affect speech.

“Most people think that speech pathologists just work with children and adults who stutter and those who lisp. But we deal with so much more, and not just the way that people speak,” Prof Kambanaros says.

“Brain injuries often rob people of their speech, or comprehension, and can also affect the muscles in the mouth, and pharynx, leaving people unable to properly swallow.

“We also work with people who have voice disorders – where voice quality can be harsh, tense, gravelly or high-pitched – often as a result of using their voice incorrectly, or after brain injury and conditions like Parkinson’s or motor neurone disease.

“Children may have specific language difficulties linked to low socio-economic status or genetics, and multicultural communities also require our help due to communication struggles with a second language,” Prof Kambanaros says.

Medication is also being investigated for people struggling with aphasia (finding a word) as a result of a brain injury or other speech impediments caused by neurological conditions.

“We also work closely with paediatricians and kindergarten teachers, identifying red flags in young children’s speech development. There are certain milestones that children should be achieving at particular ages when it comes to speech and many parents may not be aware of these.”

Prof Kambanaros is heading a new UniSA program offering a Bachelor of Speech Pathology (Honours) for the first time in 2020.

Fifty students have enrolled in the UniSA degree, 10 of whom are multilingual, with fluency in Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic and Greek among other languages, which is a bonus for Adelaide’s multicultural community, Prof Kambanaros says.

SA residents will also be able to access speech pathology services for a small fee at UniSA’s two city medical clinics once this year’s intake is in their third and final year, under the supervision of qualified speech pathologists.

“This is a significant win for the community, many of whom cannot afford private providers and therefore put off getting help for communication or speech issues that they or their children are experiencing.”

The demand for speech pathologists is expected to increase by 20 per cent in the next few years due to higher numbers of stroke patients and children with speech and language problems.

One in five children have difficulty understanding or using language and 14 per cent of 15-year-olds have only basic literacy skills, according to Speech Pathology Australia.

At least 30 per cent of people suffer speech loss after a stroke (the second highest cause of disability in Australia) and 85 per cent of people with Parkinson’s have voice, speech and/or swallowing difficulties.

“Statistics show that 46 per cent of young Australian offenders have a language impairment and there is also a high correlation between communication problems and poor mental health,” Prof Kambanaros says.

“It is clear that more needs to be done in Australia when it comes to addressing these issues. At UniSA we are taking the lead and ensuring the next generation of speech pathologists are well equipped to meet the growing demand,” she says.

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