Why we shouldn’t always blame speech difficulties on deafness… 

When my then two year old deaf daughter was attending playgroups, so many people noted how fluently she signed.
“It’s because she’s deaf,” they told each other, nodding heads.
And when I expressed my concern that she could only vocalise one vowel sound and had zero lip pattern, they came to the same conclusion;
“It’s because she’s deaf! All deaf children have a speech delay, that’s why they have speech therapy!”

But I knew different. Call it a hunch, Mother’s instinct, or part of being deaf myself.
The fact that our little girl couldn’t imitate lip pattern or shapes with her mouth screamed out at me that there was something different, and something entirely separate to her deafness going on.

At that time we weren’t entitled to any support from a Teacher of the Deaf as our daughter only had one sided deafness. So I went to our GP. Straight away we were referred to a speech and language team and met our speech therapist.
After an initial assessment it was agreed that our daughter was eligible for therapy and we were given six week blocks, a format similar to what an older deaf child would receive.

Reflecting on the first few months of therapy, most of it consisted of our little girl signing and echoing vowel sounds “e,e,e” and “a,a,a.”

Eventually we were granted the support of a Teacher of the Deaf and she herself commented how unusual our situation was considering our daughter had enough hearing in one ear to access every day sounds.
Finally, it felt like others were slowly seeing what I could see… it’s not just because she’s deaf!

The pivotal moment came for us in July this year – almost a year after we first sought help – we finally had a diagnosis.
Verbal dyspraxia.

I had previously heard of the term dyspraxia and foolishly assumed it meant physically clumsy or uncoordinated – which our little gymnast definitely wasn’t. But verbal dyspraxia is actually a neurological disorder in which the brain doesn’t automatically tell the mouth and the tongue how to form shapes or make sounds.
It’s why our daughter failed to imitate lip patterns and would hum and chatter only in vowel sounds. Finally the puzzle pieces were coming together!

With this new diagnosis, a new action plan was formed. Children with verbal dyspraxia require more frequent, intensive bursts of short therapy rather than longer sessions for blocks at a time.

While most children hear sounds or see lip patterns and copy them instinctively, our little girl has had to break everything up and one letter at a time learn how to form shapes and make sounds with her mouth. The regular, shorter therapy sessions meant that her brain would most likely store these and use them again.

We have been blessed to have a brilliant speech therapist who highly values BSL and is so knowledgeable about verbal dyspraxia. Our daughter sees her “talking” sessions as fun playtimes and she is so aware of the benefit the sessions bring.

Our daughters desire to talk is actually one of the reasons we were insistent on getting help. Long before we had the verbal dyspraxia diagnosis, our daughter signed to us one night before bed. She said “I can’t talk. It’s too hard.” And she told us that she was “sad because her mouth didn’t work” and declared “I want to sing!”
She knew she wanted to speak and could do so – but it was hard work. And thank GOODNESS we had BSL because without that there would’ve been no way for her to develop her expressive language. How frustrating it must be for children with verbal dyspraxia who don’t have sign language to express themselves.

Fastforward to the present and our daughter has been at mainstream nursery for six weeks now. We have always been more worried about her verbal dyspraxia than her deafness in terms of how she would cope, but we couldn’t be more delighted with her progress.

With regular therapy at home and at nursery, we’ve been astounded by the speed at which her confidence in speech has developed. She sang this morning to the Peppa Pig theme tune “pe-ppa Pig oink oink!” and I marvelled at how just a few months ago there was no way she could even piece a word together let alone sing a theme tune!
She chats to her friends with sign and voice, and she even confidently stood up at Show and Tell and told the whole class about her toy cat!

All we want is for our daughter to be a confident communicator – whether she chooses to do that in sign, speech or with both.

Having the right diagnosis offers her more options, more opportunities and allows her to be understood for who she is – and not what textbooks say she should be.
Being deaf myself I admit that it means some speech sounds – typically the ones I can’t hear – are harder for me to say. And some words I would never attempt at pronouncing! And so I understand where the generalisation regarding deafness and speech comes from.

Yet we need to remind others to look at deaf children as individuals; so many factors can influence speech and language – not just deafness.

Our daughters growing confidence in communication may not have been possible if she had kept been passed on as just another “typical deaf child with a speech delay.”
I don’t believe there’s as such a thing as a typical deaf child. To do so is just to give rise to assumptions again and these are dangerous things that can really impact on a child’s life.

If you’re a parent or family member and you think something additional to deafness is going on with a deaf child, trust your gut. Follow it up and refuse to let your child be pigeon holed.

For more information on verbal dyspraxia see https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/professionals/speech-language/

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