Have face masks delayed children’s speech development?

Children love to imitate. It’s one of the main ways they learn; taking note of how the people around them talk, move and act, and then recreating them.

So what happens when children’s ability to learn from those around them is compromised? Many parents, caregivers and educators are now dealing with the consequences of prolonged face mask use over the past two years.

“Them being in a school environment and not being able to see their teacher’s mouth, because kids basically rely on you as a role model to learn, it’s really hard to learn when you don’t have that,” Canberra says- based Allied Health Assistant, Chloe Pascoe.

Although mask mandates have been lifted, many people in the community, health and aged care sectors continue to wear them. The early years are vital for cognitive and social development, so for some the damage may already have been done, suggests Ms Pascoe.

“If a child, when they’re two years old and they can’t speak yet, their whole life has been just masks, they don’t know anything different, so there are huge long-term impacts because he doesn’t know what else, that’s basically all they know,” she says.

As a self-proclaimed extrovert, the idea of ​​speaking for a living resonated with Ms Pascoe, who is studying occupational therapy at university, as she was unable to complete a speech therapy degree in Canberra.

“A friend of mine lost her brother last year and she saw an occupational therapist and they really helped in terms of recovery so that’s when I applied [for university],” she says.

Ms Pascoe says that even before the pandemic, people were increasingly aware of speech sound disorders, autism and other diagnoses, and the demand for speech therapy is now greater than ever.

“The impact of Covid has been mask-wearing and facial recognition. The kids haven’t been to play centers and playgroups and haven’t done their normal activities, so they’re really impacted developmentally,” she says.

A collection of tools to help children develop their language.

The clinic where Ms. Pascoe works focuses on speech sound disorders and early language. They mainly treat children under the age of about eight (some are older), who may have started speaking later than most or who may stutter, and they provide early intervention for speech and language. As Ms. Pascoe is still a student, all of her clients are followed by one of the speech therapists who writes the plans for her.

Pinpointing the exact long-term impacts can be difficult because every child is different, she says. The clinic sees a variety of cases that require work on different speech sound targets. What their patients have in common is the requirement for early intervention; the longer a problem goes untreated, the more therapy is needed.

“I had a client who is 13 and his severity is basically a habit he’s had for 13 years. They’re going to need intervention for a very long time; whereas if someone came in with a lisp at the age five, it would help him in the long run. They’re still learning, they’re still a sponge, we can really change the treatment,” she says.

However, she understands that can be difficult to do when the medical industry as a whole is facing a staffing shortage.

“The waiting lists are incredibly long. It’s really difficult to insist when the parents call us, panicked because their child does not speak. They can’t get them into an occupational therapist or a speech therapist for 12 to 18 months,” she says.

By contrast, Ms. Pascoe says the clinic where she works has a waiting list of less than six months. Many of their clients come for an assessment after parents have been told by teachers or child care providers that their child may be delayed. They only accept patients if they can offer them a place for therapy after the first meeting.

“We don’t like the idea of ​​someone coming in, being assessed, being told everything that’s wrong with their child, and being put back on the waitlist,” she says.

Information on speech milestones can be found at speechpathologyaustralia.org.au

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