Micheál Dennehy is a bright, bubbly, and really chatty five-year-old, according to his mother Audrey.
“He’s a loveable rogue really, and he has a very sweet personality.”
A trained intellectual disabilities nurse from Kilbrin, Kanturk, Audrey first raised concerns about Micheál’s speech at his 18-month check. She was initially told he would probably grow out of it.
“His speech wasn’t developing as well as it should have been. He was very much frustrated in preschool, very much frustrated at home. He was getting a lot of questions like ‘what are you saying’ coming from well-intended family members that just couldn't understand him.
Last July, he was seen by a speech and language therapist. “I think it became obvious very quickly that this was more than a ‘he’ll grow out of it’ kind of thing.”
Micheál was diagnosed with developmental language disorder (DLD), a condition that causes difficulties when learning a first language, understanding what other people say, and expressing yourself accurately.
DLD is said to be as common as dyslexia, and more prevalent than autism, yet it remains far less recognised. As such, Friday is DLD Awareness Day, to draw attention to a condition believed to affect two children in every classroom of 30.
Micheál now attends a language class in Scoil Ghobnatan, Mallow, Cork, a small, early intervention class where younger students follow the mainstream curriculum while receiving targeted speech and language therapies.
“I didn't know these classes existed,” Audrey said. “We got through the mountains of paperwork, crossed our fingers and toes, and prayed that we would get in. There's a speech therapist in the room, three days a week. We work at home with him, and it continues in school. It's intensive therapy on a weekly basis. It’s been described as like having five years of speech therapy in one year.
“He’s happy. It's been a blessing. We're extremely lucky because there are not enough of these classes. If he hadn't gotten to the class, I dread to think how he would be managing in a mainstream junior infants class now."
DLD can be missed, misdiagnosed, or misinterpreted as a child behaving poorly, not listening, or just being inattentive. It has been known about for hundreds of years, but previously went by other names, according to Dr Pauline Frizelle, of University College Cork (UCC).
“It's a hidden disability so people with DLD look the same as everybody else. It might be that they make more errors, for example in conversation, or that they might use simpler sentences, or even have difficulty organising their conversation.
"A teacher at first might think a child is having difficulty with school, rather than that they have an inherent difficulty processing language to understand what people say, or to express themselves.
Donna Lyons is a special needs assistant (SNA) in a mainstream school in Banteer, Cork. Her son Oisín completed junior infants in a mainstream school. He now attends the language class with Micheál.
“While he was in his junior infant year, we noticed that he was struggling with his speech and language, more so the language side of it, understanding what he was being asked, or following instructions.”
His teacher would have to repeat instructions several times, Donna added. “Or he wasn’t using the correct grammar, and it was impacting his interaction with other children. A child with DLD difficulties, it doesn't just impact them academically, it impacts them socially and emotionally as well.
"He's absolutely flying it now. I see the huge benefits of the language classes. He gets speech and language therapy three times a week, he's receiving occupational therapy. The workload is hard at home, after school, it's very intense. But he'll do his year there and we've seen massive improvements already.
“Spoken language is so important in the classroom. It underpins learning, relationships, and emotional wellbeing from the very beginning to the very end of their school days. Language is the basis of everything. You've got to understand what you're reading, what you're learning.
"Long-term, moving on to secondary school, we need to put supports in place to help these children. Children with DLD, they withdraw themselves from others, you know, they get really anxious. And it's actually proven that children with DLD are six times more likely to develop anxiety and other issues.”
Attendance in a language class is capped at two years. There is a need for more structured supports for families afterward, according to Julie Sweeney, whose son Connor previously attended. Both of his years in the class were affected by Covid, and his SLT was redeployed in March 2020 for Covid duties.
“He would have definitely benefited, hands down, from more time in the language class. Both of his placements were affected by Covid but yet we couldn't get an extended placement, and that is solely down to the fact that schools are oversubscribed."
Dr Frizelle has spent the last number of years developing a DLD assessment app that comprehensively assesses a child’s use of complex sentences, which are essential as children progress through school.
In order to make the app ready to be used by speech and language therapists or teachers, she needs to find out how children with no language difficulties respond at different ages.
“We need lots of people to download the app and ask their children to complete it.”
- More information on the project can be found here