When Rebecca Vance tells parents that their children have "specific language impairment," the parents often wonder aloud what they could have done to prevent the disorder.
The answer, she tells them, is most likely nothing.
"They haven't done anything wrong," says Vance, a speech pathologist and University of Arizona researcher. "When we identify children with specific language impairment and when I call parents to talk about it, about 80 percent of the parents say they had similar problems when they were children."
Vance, along with Elena Plante, a UA professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, run a six-week summer camp for 4- and 5-year-old children who have difficulty acquiring language skills through interactions with their parents, teachers and peers.
The children get speech therapy while Plante and Vance get data to further their research on better and quicker ways to treat children with language impairments.
The hallmarks of specific language impairment include difficulty with grammar, including proper word order, tenses, subject-verb agreement and use of the correct pronouns for gender distinction.
"When the public thinks about speech problems, they usually think of stuttering or lisps or children not being able to say their R's," Plante says. "But we're really talking about something different. We're talking about the inability to take an idea and then formulate it in a grammatical way that uses appropriate vocabulary to express that idea, and that's what children really struggle with."
Language impairments become noticeable to parents, teachers and peers when children are 3 to 4 years old.
"The idea is if we can get in early when these problems first become really apparent we may be able to have the biggest impact," Plante says.
"When we get a child at 4, we have a very limited amount of time to get that child on track so he'll be ready to read," Vance says.
Research shows that children who have delayed language development in the preschool years are at risk for academic difficulties when they start school — and, specifically, problems with reading and writing because "reading and writing are language on paper," Vance says.
What's more, children with poor language abilities are at greater risk for dropping out of school and for not being able to get well-paying jobs in later years. "So, there's a socio-economic consequence to this impairment," Plante says.
Problems with language occur in about 8 to 13 percent of the population, so they aren't rare, Plante says. In fact, specific language impairment is more common than many better-known disorders, such as autism or Down syndrome.
"This is the big secret that nobody knows about but that's all around us," she says.
The important thing to know, Vance says, is that children "are not having these problems because they can't hear, and they're not having these problems because they're not intelligent. They're bright, they can think, they can problem-solve, but when you get them in the realm of language and they have to process and use words, it's just very difficult."
The researchers also rule out environmental toxins or head trauma as the cause of the children's difficulty with language.
"We like to say these children have a language difficulty for no apparent reason," Vance says.
Plante says the genetics behind the disorder are being actively pursued.
"There are several gene sites that are being investigated," she says. "They haven’t yet identified individual genes. We know it runs in families. We know there's a genetic basis. We know that there's a neural basis and that these genes affect the brain and the way the brain develops and therefore the way the brain processes."
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, this summer's camp will start June 20 and will mark the seventh year of its operation.
After children have been selected to participate in the program, they are divided daily into two groups. One half start the day in a classroom environment that provides a language-rich curriculum, including storybook reading, vocabulary building, sound skills and the development of social skills. Meanwhile, the other half start the day in a research environment where they receive therapy, or instruction, that focuses on grammar.
"Our ultimate goal in therapy is to have children take what we teach them and make it part of their system and use it every day, all the time," Vance says.
The program includes student and postdoctoral clinicians who are trained to do the therapy.
"This is a fantastic example of student engagement on the campus," Plante says. "The program gives them firsthand knowledge of evidence-based practice, and they get experience with managing the behavior of kids with communication difficulties. So, we're not only here to help the children, we're here to train future clinicians and future researchers."
Research coming from of the camp has been gaining attention.
"Clinicians have gone on to implement it in their own practice," Plante says. "So, I do believe this is having an impact on how practice is happening."