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Speech and Language in the Classroom

The Blog

Friday, 16 December 2016

An interview with... Alison Wintgens, Speech and Language Therapist Specialising in Selective Mutism

Approximate reading time: Under 3 minutes.

1) As one of the few specialists in the field of Selective Mutism, what was the driving force leading to choosing this as your focus?

As a speech and language therapist on a child and adolescent mental health team since 1990, my job was to work with young people who had both emotional/behavioural problems and difficulties with communication. Selective Mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder resulting in an intense and irrational fear of talking. It affects someone’s ability to communicate fully in many situations and can profoundly affect their lives, so it absolutely fitted the remit of my job and was bound to be something I needed to address.

I was struck however by the lack of information available on how best to assess and treat children and young people with SM; and also by the devastating effects if it is not recognised and well managed. It was then exciting and a great relief to meet Maggie at a conference where we were both presenting on SM; and to persuade her that we should write down our understanding and experience of working with SM and what exactly we were doing.

2) What has been the most motivating experience you’ve had with Selective Mutism, which has maintained your interest?

I haven’t had one particular motivating experience; my interest has been maintained over more than twenty-five years by sharing and developing my knowledge. Sadly many people still have not come across or even heard of SM. It is a great relief for children, young people and their parents who have come for help to hear that it is a recognised condition; they are not the only ones who have it; there are ways to get over it; and this is what will help. And it is wonderful to see the progress they can make when people in their educational setting understand SM, the pressure to talk is taken off and helpful strategies are put in place.

3) What is your top tip for TAs, Teachers, or SENCOs in mainstream schools, who may be supporting a child with Selective Mutism, or may suspect a child has Selective Mutism?

This can’t be answered simply in one top tip, but here are a few ideas!
-          Listen to what the parents are telling you, and if it seems the child can talk comfortably in some settings but not in others, find out more about SM.
-          Take off any pressure on the child to talk.
-          Support and encourage the child and find non-verbal ways that s/he can join in.
-          And read Maggie’s Link Magazine article ‘Shyness or Selective Mutism?’ for more tips!

4) With increased time spent on computers and phones from a young age, do you feel that this environment can hinder or help with the treatment for Selective Mutism?

This is a really interesting question. On the whole I think computers and phones are very helpful in the treatment of SM. Those with SM can benefit in many ways. When direct speech to some is not yet possible, they may feel less isolated by messaging and using Facebook. They and their families can get information about SM; watch encouraging YouTube videos; and post questions or comments to others in the same situation. And the phone can be used in a gradual controlled way to desensitise themselves from the fear of speaking.

Read more on Selective Mutism in Maggie Johnson's article 'Shyness or Selective Mustism?' in the Link Magazine, Issue 6...

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Friday, 2 December 2016

An interview with... Ruth Merritt, Speech and Language Therapist Specialising in Deafness

Approximate reading time: 3 mins, 30 secs.

1) You specialise in a range of communication difficulties, but what lead to your fascination specifically within the field of deafness?

In speech and language therapy you often have the opportunity to specialise in an area of work, since the breadth of scope of our work as therapists is so diverse it is difficult to hone our skills in all of the areas. I actually met an inspirational therapist when I was at university who sparked my interest in working with deaf people. I started work as soon as I could in a school for deaf children and loved it. I adore using sign language and I find deaf people’s views on people and life fascinating, as they are so much more visually attuned than hearing people.

2) What has been the most motivating experience throughout your career as a Speech and Language Therapist working with deaf people?

I think I love all of my work with deaf people, but possibly the highlight has to be seeing the faces of young children around 1 or 2 years old when they first have their cochlear implants switched on (one, or more commonly two devices which provide some hearing to individuals who have a severe to profound hearing loss; comprising of an internal part (which is surgically implanted) and external parts. The cochlear implant changes sound into electrical stimulation and this stimulates the nerve which then passes to the brain). Children’s reactions can be so varied but often their eyes light up as they look back and forth at their parents in the wonder of hearing something!

3) What is your top tip for TAs, Teachers, or SENCOs in mainstream schools, who may have a pupil with suspected hearing difficulties?

Something that is very important to understand is that hearing loss can be so variable. Some children may suffer from a fluctuating hearing loss resulting from fluid in their middle ears. This is very common and can be treated. These children can often be disruptive, inattentive and even a bit naughty in the classroom. Their speech and language may be slow to develop. Children with greater and more permanent levels of hearing loss may have developed compensatory tactics to cope with their lack of hearing. They are often more visual than hearing children and appear to “hear”, as they carefully watch what others are doing and copy them. Children who don’t say the “s” sound at all may well have a hearing loss and should be tested immediately. In fact if teaching staff ever suspect that a child has a hearing loss at all, they should note down their evidence for this and contact the parents to make an appointment with the GP.

4) From your experience with cochlear implants, what would your advice be for a teacher working with a pupil adapting to their cochlear implant?

This depends so much on factors like when the child had their implants and how much language they had before their cochlear implants were switched on. If they had some hearing before and have lost it or their hearing had deteriorated, they will need to relearn some of what they already knew. Revisiting words, songs and stories they knew before can be a powerful way to retrain their brain to decipher the electrical signal to make it meaningful.

One of the main aims in the early days is that they wear their speech processors (the external parts of the cochlear implants) at all times.  Sounds need to be introduced in a meaningful and tuneful way so that the children can learn to discriminate between different sounds. That is the hardest aspect of adjusting to cochlear implants as they are not like the popular myth- a “bionic ear” but actually require lots of input and support for them to learn to discriminate meaningfully between the sounds, and from this develop their speech and language skills.

Read more from Ruth in her article 'Glue Ear' in the Link Magazine, Issue 6...

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