Speech and language are uniquely human characteristics which essentially define us a species, so there is an assumption that everybody learns to talk – well, unless of course there’s something wrong with them.
By ‘something wrong’ we usually have in mind a condition such as autism, a hearing impairment or a learning disability but there are children who have none of these and still don’t learn to talk at the usual time or in the usual way. This seems to strike us as so counter-intuitive that we try to explain away this apparent anomaly – most commonly by suggesting their parents don’t talk to them enough.
Whether this is ever an adequate explanation is questionable and there certainly are children whose parents do talk to them yet who still struggle. They are not that rare either. Research has identified that around 7% of children starting school have a speech or language difficulty – an average of 2 – 3 children in every classroom.
This statistic is likely to take most people by surprise. After all, how many children have you known who can’t talk? The problem is that SLCN is about more than just being able to ‘talk’. Most children, even those with SLCN, do eventually ‘talk’. But it is possible to ‘talk’ without being able to understand very much; or express yourself very clearly; or indeed say what you really want to say rather than what you think somebody else might want to hear.
We all know what it’s like to try and cope in a foreign language: most of us can summon up a bit of French or Spanish, but certainly cannot speak or understand it the way we do English. This is what life is like for people with SLCN – but on a permanent basis and not just for a couple of weeks on holiday. And let’s be clear, SLCN doesn’t go away. Even with the best help, children with speech and language difficulties rarely catch up fully with their peers. In a society that depends so much on effective communication, this puts them at a huge disadvantage.
Yet their needs are rarely recognised. Instead they tend to be dismissed as ‘inarticulate’, ‘poorly educated’ or even ‘not very bright’, when actually they might in many ways be just as capable as anyone else. It is as though the notion that other humans like us might struggle to communicate is something we simply cannot contemplate – after all: talking just comes naturally, doesn’t it?
This article has been written to mark Invisible Disabilities Week and highlights the hidden disability of SLCN (Speech, Language and Communication Needs). Please forward it as widely as you can to help raise awareness of the condition. For further information or help, please contact the Afasic Helpline on 0300 666 9410.