Amy Bratton, a speech language pathologist who works with Max Whitaker at TalkBack in Johnson City. (contributed photo)
Lynn Whitaker knew something was wrong soon after son Max was born on July 2, 2010.
“He didn’t want to latch on. He had a hard time drinking from the little bottles in the hospital. The nurses deemed him a lazy eater,” Whitaker said.
Max said “Momma” and “Dada” when he was 9 or 10 months old, but he only said the words once.
“He just lost it,” she said. “He never really babbled much.”
Max started speech therapy at 18 months. “It took them from then until he was 2 to rule out other stuff and decide this is suspected apraxia. They don’t like to really diagnose it until they’re 3,” Whitaker said.
Childhood apraxia of speech (CAS) is a complicated neurological speech disorder in children that makes it difficult or impossible for them to accurately produce sounds, syllables and/or words, despite having a good understanding of language. Apraxia is not caused by muscle weakness or paralysis. Rather, the brain has problems sending signals to move the body parts — lips, jaw, tongue — needed for speech.
Max knows what he wants to say, but his brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words.
“If you think of it like your brain is trying to give impulses to your tongue ... but the impulses aren’t making it there, sometimes that helps in understanding,” said Amy Bratton, a speech language pathologist who works with Max at TalkBack in Johnson City. “It does not involve muscle weakness. It’s all about the speech motor control.”
The incidence of CAS is one to 10 in every 1,000 children, Bratton said, and treatment is individualized based on how each child responds or what their needs are. Bratton is currently treating two children with CAS.
Bratton stressed the importance of early intervention, and said Max’s progress is due to having a supportive family who constantly works with him.
“Early intervention is very important. If their vocabulary is low, if they’re not imitating sounds, if they didn’t imitate or didn’t babble a lot, those are [warning] signs. One of the biggest things we would want people to know about apraxia of speech is that a disciplined home program that provides repetition, that will help the child much more than bringing them once or twice to speech therapy,” Bratton said. “They need lots of opportunities to practice what they learn.”
Many children with CAS ultimately do achieve normal speech, but some do not.
Max’s vocabulary is up to 80 to 100 words, low for a 3-year-old, Whitaker said, but she’s pleased with his progress.
“Last year at this time, we were trying to teach Max to say ‘Uh.’ He wouldn’t say anything,” Whitaker said. “Once they determined they thought it was apraxia, the speech teacher started with Kaufman cards [visual referent speech cards], a type of apraxia approach, and we started seeing some success. The cards break down the word and teach them to say the word in a more drawn out way, like instead of saying ‘baby,’ they may just start out saying ‘bubba,’ then they go through five different steps to finally get to ‘baby.’”
Max has speech therapy at Ridgeview Elementary in Gray twice a week and at TalkBack twice a week.
“He is very smart,” Whitaker said. “He can take letter tiles and spell his name.”
To raise awareness of childhood apraxia of speech, the Whitakers will join others for the 2013 Northeast Tennessee Walk for Children with Apraxia of Speech at 10 a.m., Saturday, at Warriors’ Path State Park, Shelter 1, in Kingsport. Cost is $20 for adults and $10 for kids 18 and younger. All proceeds will benefit apraxia programs and research of the Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America (CASANA).
Check-in begins at 9:15 a.m., with the walk starting at 10 a.m. To pre-register, make a donation or learn more about the event, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://secure.apraxia-kids.org/netennesseewalk.