Monday, September 3, 2012

Speech Maps

This morning Emma wanted to tell me that her vitamin pill was a "monster on a skateboard." But having just learned how to pronounce /n/ /s/ /t/ /r/ /k/ and /d/ in the last two months these two words posed a daunting challenge to her. At first she just reverted to her familiar pronunciation of mostly vowels: "mah-eh ah a gay-oh." I smiled, raise my eyebrows expectantly and waited for her to try again.

She got a look of determination on her face and gave it a second try, hitting a few more consonants, "mah-sss-er ah a gate-bor!" I wasn't sure whether to just praise her and move on or to push her further. I didn't want to make her melt down with frustration, but she seemed fresh enough to give it another try. I broke the blended sounds of "nst" and "sk" into separate consonants and we made it through both words slowly, but blending the sounds fluently seemed to be far beyond her capability.

Before giving up I wanted to try one more thing. Grabbing my notebook I wrote the words "monster" and "skateboard" on a clean sheet of paper. Emma immediately began to sound them out, carefully and perfectly blending all the sounds! I could see that the jumble of sounds coming into her ears had just straightened themselves out on the paper in front of her like puzzle pieces falling together.

Speech apraxia is a "motor planning" disorder, meaning Emma has difficulty planning out the movements needed to produce the complex sounds in our language. She also has difficulty sending this plan to the muscles of her mouth. It's like needing to draw a map and then email it to her mouth so her mouth knows which route to take. When we practice certain sounds in isolation over and over again this strengthens the "internet connection" between her brain and her mouth, increasing the "bandwidth" so that these messages get through more smoothly. But I realized this morning that these new, faster neurological connections that we've been working so hard to build are of limited use if Emma can't draw an efficient map in her mind of the sounds she needs to say.

My experiment this morning confirmed for me that Emma is a very visual learner, that seeing the sounds laid out in order for her made sense of them in a way that hearing them never could have. I am a very auditory learner: I need to hear a sentence spoken to understand it well, but living with Matt has helped me understand that other people out there need to see things written down in order to understand efficiently. Emma clearly takes after Matt in this area.

This is wonderful news as far as I am concerned. It means that as Emma learns to read and spell words she will be building a library of speech maps for all of these words, ready to pull up and send down her newly built neurological pathways. Her tongue should get less lost on its way to an intelligible sentence, and hopefully someday she will arrive at fluent speech.

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