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Why Speech Therapists Need to Speak Tech

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing mental healthfilmconstruction, archaeologistsset designersteachersfashion designersarchitects, journalistssmall business owners, and the professionals protecting our national parks.

With Facebook Live, SnapChat, and YouTube, people across the globe are communicating with audiences and making themselves heard.

However, not everyone feels confident talking on camera, or even talking with a few friends at lunch. Speech impediments can completely silence some people while limiting what others can say.

This is why speech therapists are more important today than ever. Here are just a few strides the world of speech therapy is making through technology and how it’s giving patients the confidence to speak up.

Speech Technology Helps With Child and Adult Impediments

Speech impediments are actually quite common among adults and children. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about one in 12 (7.7 percent) American children between 3 and 17 has a disorder relating to voice, speech, language, or swallowing.

Additionally, by first grade nearly five percent of children have noticeable speech disorders (including stuttering and dysarthria — difficult articulation).

Fortunately, advances in technology have worked to improve stuttering and stammering in children and adults. In this case, software development and coding go hand-in-hand with hardware development.

The Stuttering Foundation has a story by one person, John Williams, who says he never had the discipline to complete therapy and was frustrated by the bulkiness of in-ear technology. He has stuttered for more than 50 years and it took decades for technology to create an effective and comfortable earpiece. Today, his stuttering rate has dropped by 80 percent.

While technology has come a long way, the medical field still needs tinkerers to create better devices to improve speech.   

Speech Therapists Use Tech to Help Stroke Victims Recover

Speech therapists are embracing technology to improve our knowledge of brain recovery and speech development, the team at VocoVision writes, and this is giving patients the feeling of having a speech therapist in their homes.

Patients can meet with speech therapists weekly to check their progress, and then use programs on their tablets to complete “homework” through online programs.

This technology is especially helpful for stroke victims, one in three of whom develop aphasia, or the loss of speech due to brain damage. Doctors and speech therapists are continuing to make strides to improve the treatment process and recovery levels of aphasia sufferers.

Treating the Brain Like a Computer Program

Lucy Ward at The Guardian reported in 2015 on advances in stroke treatment through cognitive analysis. She spoke with Sandra Whiteside and Rosemary Varley at Sheffield University, who developed a computer program that approached stroke patients differently. Speech is limited in a stroke when the brain can’t form connections between concepts and words, so articulation is just part of the therapy process.

Patients’ brains have to light up and recognize that an image of Garfield is a cat before they can even form the word for it, for example. Therefore, the professors are working to connect the dots and reassociate images with words. This isn’t unlike traditional programming methods that web developers use.

These technological advances are especially important as we better understand the recovery window for aphasia. Historically, doctors were under the impression that patients needed therapy for a few months after the stroke, but more studies are finding that the benefits extend well beyond this window.

Extending the Window for Recovery

Along with identifying how the brain forms words and identifies concepts, researchers are also trying to extend the recovery window itself.

Carolyn Crist at Reuters shared one study in which patients who had aphasia lasting more than six months after a stroke were given intensive speech therapy in a three-week course. This was different because most doctors believe therapy should start immediately, as patients presumably only have a small window for improvement.

But not only did 44 percent of patients significantly improve their communication ability, but the results lasted for six months after the study. Patients also said they had a higher quality of life and were happier than when their communication skills were damaged.

A stroke can leave adults paralyzed and unable to communicate for the rest of their lives, but modern technology is working to give them their lives back.

Technology Can Make Speech Therapy Fun for Kids

Of course, you don’t have to be a software engineer to change a life through speech therapy. Tablets and computers are becoming more common in the field as speech professionals use apps to work with kids and make exercises fun.

Little Bee Speech has one study about an American school district where administrators presented iPads to speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and then asked them how effective they thought they were on a scale of one (very ineffective) to 10 (very effective). When asked how effective iPads were compared to traditional methods, the average response was above an eight. The same can be said for the effectiveness of tablets as a sustained motivational tool for speech therapy.

Technology can also work as a tool to encourage communication from children on the autism spectrum. In an article for Noodle, Jules Csillag explains that apps make great conversation starters (“What are you playing?” or “Who is that character?”) while slideshow and movie apps help kids creatively express themselves.

In this case, social therapy could even take the form of creating a slideshow after a vacation and asking your child why they chose certain photos and what they like about them.

These speech therapy techniques also work because they make learning fun. In an article for The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Tracy Sippl, MS, CCC-SLP shares a few of her favorite tools for her articulation students and language-disabled students.

Games like Mad Libs and Silly Stories help patients with pronunciation and vocabulary, she says, while Farm Sounds and Zoo Sounds can be used to explain mouth shape and vowels. The kids think they’re playing games and getting to make funny noises, but they’re actually developing better speech skills.

Not only does technology make speech therapy more engaging, but it can also make it more effective by encouraging children to keep practicing when they get home.   

Tablets Bring Speech Therapy Into the Home

Historically, parents took a more passive approach to their children’s speech therapy needs — dropping the child off for lessons or observing from behind a two-way mirror, for example. Today, more professionals are getting parents involved in the speech therapy process. Lauren Lowry at the Hanen Centre says there are three reasons for this:

  • Children learn to communicate through daily activities, not just in speech class.
  • Parents have more opportunities to interact with children throughout the week.
  • Parents know their children better than a teacher or therapist can.

Lowry believes that involving parents can turn speech therapy from a chore into an activity that extends throughout the day — and into something that can actually be fun for the child. Something as simple as curling up with an iPad to review exercises through games at night is a bonding experience as well as a therapeutic technique.

However, these iPad apps aren’t necessarily the only way for kids to learn. Carrie Clark at Speech and Language Kids encourages parents to use technology to target specific skills instead of chasing the latest cool app or trend. Parents who plan their sessions should decide what they want to accomplish and then evaluate the tools available to them to reach their goals.

Technology might not always be the answer to that particular problem, but it is one option for parents and therapists to track improvements outside of the office sessions. This further emphasizes the idea that technology is a tool for speech therapists, not a replacement.

Speech Therapy Can Change the Lives of Students

As therapists work with children who have speech impediments as well as nonverbal children who have suffered trauma or are on the autism spectrum, they’re setting them up for successful careers and happier lives.

Warren Buffett told business students back in 2009 that they could increase their value by 50 percent just by improving their communication and public speaking skills. In an article for Inc, Carmine Gallo explains that Buffett himself was terrified of public speaking and actually dropped out of public speaking courses because he was afraid of speaking up.

Buffett isn’t alone.

One study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found verbal communication, and specifically “the ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization,” was the most in-demand skill among employers in 2016.

Speaking skills beat out the ability to work in a team, the ability to solve problems and the ability to prioritize work as the most important factor in job success.

By developing speaking skills early — even if it’s just working to overcome a minor problem — today’s kids can approach classroom speeches confidently, which can lead to confident adults and employees.

Demand for Speech Therapists Is Growing

All of these technological advances only heighten the demand for speech therapists. As doctors and scientists learn more about the human brain and motor skills, previously challenging cases now have a higher chance of improvement.

Valerie Sweeten recently wrote about the career outlooks for speech therapists for Chron. She reported that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the demand for speech-language pathologists will grow 19 percent between 2012 and 2022.

While half of SPLs work in schools and help children with speaking disabilities, more are opening private practices to work with adults. Advances in medicine mean people are living longer — and more older adults are surviving strokes — which means there’s an increased demand for SPLs to work with older adults.

With current demand, there’s nearly a 100 percent employment rate for current graduates.

Technology is helping to meet this demand. The team at ClinicNote explains that more speech therapists are using common video tools. They explain that FaceTime can be HIPAA-compliant with the right security features, so more SPLs are using it to meet with patients.

Not only does this help increase the number of patients a speech therapist can see during the day, but it also provides access to rural students and people who can’t leave their homes. More people than ever can improve their speaking abilities.  

However, studying speech therapy doesn’t necessarily mean that recent graduates will work directly with patients. Emily Mullin at Scientific American explains that millions of Americans struggle with speech recognition systems like Siri and Alexa.

While these voice assistants might understand 100 percent of what a well-spoken person might say, they are only able to accurately determine what someone with a stutter or other speech impediment says a little more than half the time. That means software developers working to improve vocal recognition software can help people with speech impediments just as much as individual therapists.

Many people with speech problems have expressed a sense of frustration and hopelessness from not being able to express themselves. A speech impediment can turn something as minor as ordering a latte into a personally embarrassing experience. However, with advances in technology and speech therapy, doctors are able to give patients their voices — and their lives — back.