If you suspect junior might have a speech or eating problem, a speech therapist might ease your worries.

Yang Huilin has always liked helping people. During her stint at National Junior College, the senior speech therapist was a member of her school’s Interact club and did a lot of social work. Little wonder then that Huilin decided to specialise in speech therapy after graduation.

Indeed, anything related to communication interests her as she has always loved languages, etymology and reading. So, when the opportunity to study speech pathology in Australia came up, she seized it ― and hasn’t looked back since.

Huilin says, “It is quite a good combination of social work and applied science, which also allows me to learn more about language and communication.”

She works at Kaleidoscope Therapy Centre, which offers various forms of therapy including occupational, art, psychomotor and speech therapy. Helping mostly preschoolers from ages 2 to 5, she helps to run an early intervention programme called “Ready Let’s Go” three times a week. This programme, which is led by a group of occupational and speech therapists, provides intensive therapy to help preschoolers develop their communication, motor and social skills. After that, Huilin either sees clients, meets other therapists to discuss their clients' progress or catches up on her paperwork.

But this doesn’t mean there is a specific age where problems will definitely start to happen, because each child is different and unique.”

At what age do speech issues typically make an appearance?
Children vary in their development of speech and language skills. However, they follow a natural progression for mastering communication skills. In terms of speech and language development, there are milestones that we can anticipate as children celebrate each birthday. As a rule of thumb, children say their first word around their first birthday. By their second birthday, they start putting two to three words together to form phrases such as “baby milk” or "I want milk". Between three to four years old, children usually form short sentences such as “baby drinking milk” or "I don't want ball". It is important to keep track of how your child is developing. But this doesn’t mean there is a specific age where problems will definitely start to happen, because each child is different and unique. As professionals, what we can do is to provide an assessment if the parent has concerns about their child’s speech and language skills, and thereafter advise them about their child’s needs and strengths, and whether they require therapy.

What speech impairment signs should parents look out for in their children?
Keep track of your child's speech and language developmental milestones. Research has indicated that early detection and intervention of communication issues is important. Do consider seeking professional help if your child experiences a lack of babbling, or does not use gestures like waving and pointing to communicate their needs during the infant stage. Other important signs to look out for include the child having difficulties understanding what other people are saying, or following simple routines and instructions such as "come here". Saying only a few words or sounds and having trouble putting words together by the time they are 2 years old, not playing and talking to other children, or not showing any interest in other people can also indicate difficulties with communication.

What are the top five common speech issues affecting Singaporean children?
A lot of factors can contribute to speech and language delay. There is ongoing research about the various causes and prevalence of communication disorders. In my clinical experience, most of the children have been diagnosed with Autism or other developmental disorders, genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, and hearing loss. Stuttering, where they have problems speaking fluently, voice disorders, and feeding difficulties are some of the other issues. I personally don’t attend to children with feeding difficulties often, but some of my colleagues specialise in helping children who have feeding disorders or are fussy eaters.

Find out how parents can communicate if their kids have speech issues…next!