Thursday, October 8, 2020

My Son's Speech Therapy and School Mask Conundrum

Photo by Author

Originally written on August 20, 2020

As an infant and toddler, my youngest son had frequent ear infections. The infections were indicative of fluid retention in his middle ear. The fluid prevented his ear drums from vibrating properly, thus causing conductive hearing loss. The doctor placed ear tubes in his ear two years ago so his middle ear can drain since his Eustachian tubes weren’t draining properly.

My son’s expressive language is stuck in the babbling and one-word stage, which is the spoken language level of a one-year-old. He says a few words like tickle, no, ma, and da. Mostly, he babbles. Occasionally, his intonation sounds like a word or phrase. Overall, we have to repeat sounds many times before he imitates them. He responds better when he imitates his brothers or the sound is linked with an action.

His receptive language is much higher. He can point to objects or follow one-step commands. For example, when I say “Where’s the ball?” with a book, he will point to it. And he will throw trash away if I ask him too as a one-step command.

Because my son is stuck in the one-word/babbling stage, seeing is important to his language development.

What role does sight play in learning language?

From the moment children are born, they are imitating our facial expressions. Psychologists believe this imitation derives from our “mirror neurons.” One such imitation and expression is when an infant smiles around eight weeks old. They also imitate the manner of articulation from what they see and hear parents say. The imitations carry through an infant’s cooing and babbling stages. Babies will take turns in conversation of smiles, coos, gestures, babbling, and other actions. For example, if you stick your tongue out, a baby will copy that, but usually at a slower pace.

The School Mask Mandate

Ever since Utah Governor Gary Herbert ordered that all students wear masks (or face shields), I have wondered how this would affect my toddler with a significant speech delay who will be attending special ed preschool. He would probably be covered under the disability category, but I didn’t know. I figured I could do a face shield for my son and the teacher would be wearing only a face shield. I discussed this with the preschool speech therapist when she visited for extended school year visits. She hoped that it would only be face shields.

On August 14, Gov. Herbert ordered that teachers must wear a mask with the face shield. All students must wear a mask, unless they have a doctor sign a medical exemption form. Section (3)(e) of the mandate states a communication exemption:

an individual engaged in an activity where the ability to see the mouth is
essential for communication, including an individual who is deaf or hard of
hearing while communicating with others, an individual who is
communicating with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, or a
teachers-student dyad participating in speech therapy, in which case the
individual shall wear a face shield without a mask or use alternative
protection, including a plexiglass or similar barrier;

I tried to get some clarification from my son’s previous preschool teacher during our extended school year conversations about this. She stated that students and teachers must wear masks from the last update. She didn’t seem to know anything about the exceptions for speech therapy. It seems there is a lack of communication about the exceptions.

Overall, I am very confused; some teachers are confused too. Because the rules change frequently, parents and teachers are both scrambling to figure this out. Preschool starts next week, so the kinks are yet to be determined.

Last week, I made five masks for each of my four sons to last a school week. I included my toddler because I don’t know exactly what is going on.

Amid the confusion, my older children have adjusted to school with masks. Maybe my youngest will adjust well too.

On Monday, I read an article about masks with a clear portion over the mouth. BYU deaf students were considering this alternative for themselves and their interpreters. Some read lips and also want to see the facial cues in ASL.

I am considering these clear masks for my son. I asked his new preschool teacher if she would wear one. She said she’d try it out. I will be purchasing one for her most likely. This will all cost more money, but I don’t know what to do. My son needs to see the teacher’s mouth in order to imitate speech sounds better. I believe he could copy some sounds, but not as accurately.

What can I learn from blind babies’ language development?

While writing this post, I realized that sight is not absolutely critical to learning language. For example, blind babies learn how to talk. I wondered how they learn to communicate. I found some answers on Family Connect. A blind baby learns more through touch and sound. An adult can put their babies hands on their lips or hands.

So masks will not stop my son from learning to talk, but it may make the process longer.

However, children are very resilient. Their plastic neurons forge new connections to adapt to the different learning circumstances.

This school year may be different, but children will still learn.

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