Tuesday, 2 September 2014
This afternoon, our Community Affairs References Committee brought down a report on speech pathology in Australia. During that process many people gave us detailed submissions and talked about the importance of the issue of communication in our community. We had a submission from Professor Mark Onslow, from the Australian Stuttering Research Centre, at the University of Sydney. He and his team generously offered our committee the chance to visit this extraordinary place. Earlier, in 2011, Tracy Bowden did an ABC program from the centre at Lidcombe. She opened her session by saying, 'In this modest demountable, children's lives are being changed.' Indeed, that is true.
Stuttering is something that we all know about, but unless you experience it I do not think anyone can really understand the limitations, stress and embarrassment it causes. As we know, stuttering is a speech disorder characterised by interruptions to speech, such as repeating sounds or words, hesitating, or prolonging sounds.
It is estimated that the disorder affects approximately five per cent of Australians, and usually develops in early childhood. In fact, people say that it develops very early, and in some cases it rights itself. But, as with so many conditions, early intervention has been proven to be the only way to ensure that people get the best support and have the opportunity to be cured of this condition, which can cause life-long distress and limit opportunities in education and employment.
There is evidence that, on average, people who stutter say one third less during a life time than others. And those severely affected can only say about a quarter as many words. Stuttering beings in early childhood and can continue to old age.
We found during our inquiry that communication workplace skills are now more important than ever. At the start of the 20th century, 80 per cent of occupations relied on manual skills, with only 20 per cent of occupations relying prominently on communication skills. We know that has changed dramatically. At the start of this century, the proportion of occupations relying on communication skills had increased to 62 per cent—and that continues to rise. Therefore, we know that the ability to communicate fluently and confidently is more important than ever and, in fact, can determine your life choices, your occupation and your confidence in the future.
When we visited the Lidcombe premises of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre, we learned about the Lidcombe program. It is cleverly called after the suburb where these demountables exist! This is a behavioural treatment for young children who stutter. The focus is on young children, but the treatment is actually available through to adolescence. The whole focus of treatment is based on professional speech pathology; it is an intensive program that includes having a parent and their child working together. We know the care and concern of parents for their children is paramount. When we can engage parents in working with their children in any circumstances, it is a building and bonding experience. But when a parent who knows the difficulties their child is having with speech can work practically and personally with a child through such a program it is a win for everyone involved.
While we were there, we saw the program being presented by speech pathologists and we saw parents and their children working together. It was wonderful. I spoke to a little girl and her mum. The little girl was five years old. She was confident and happy. She had just had her program session. Then we talked with a young man in his late teens who had been working in the program for a number of years. It is tough enough being a young bloke working through stuttering issues without being confronted by a group of senators who want to know how he is feeling! That was a very tough experience for him. But he very generously explained to us some of the reasons that he had wanted to be involved in the program, the difference it had made in his life and the way that he mostly was able at that stage, after years of therapy, to confidently engage in communication. In many ways, he had put the horror of his stuttering behind him.
We know how important that is. The information around the bullying that occurs of young kids who stutter is just horrific. There is evidence that bullying is accepted within community standards. In 29 works of fiction containing a character who stutters, most often characters who stutter encounter mean-spirited teasing, name-calling, demeaning remarks or bullying from one or more other characters. That causes a lifelong problem. We know that, if you are subjected to that kind of bullying and exclusion as a young person, the pain and the exclusion continues through life.
We were told that parents of more than half of two-year-olds and nearly 90 per cent of seven-year-olds report that children are acutely aware of what is happening to their speech. There are reports that children saying, 'I can't talk. Why can't I talk?,' being moody and hitting themselves in frustration are consistent with early development of speech related anxiety. That impacts on the whole family relationship.
A seminal report—and I do like that term!—provided direct video evidence of negative peer reactions to stuttering in preschool playgrounds. Such peer responses included interrupting, mocking, walking away and ignoring what the stuttering child was saying. One child was even physically assaulted as a direct result of his stuttering. The research is consistent with a series of studies with puppets showing that preschoolers readily recognise stuttering in their peers and form negative views of it.
So, on that basis, there can be no argument. If we can find a process that will help children to become confident in forming their sounds and have programs that will stop them having difficulty with speaking, that has got to be a very good thing. It will then translate into better results at school and better opportunities for employment. We also we found out from Professor Onslow that he believes that, particularly with young children, if the program is implemented effectively and early with intensive work, kids can even forget they ever stuttered. In all the information we heard in this particular committee, I think that was the thing that stayed in my mind most clearly after seeing the video of kids who are not able to form words, are lacking any kind of self-esteem and are afraid of being in social situations. We know that there is a proven program that is now working in Australia and internationally and which we can proudly say was developed in Australia at the Australian Stuttering Research Centre. If as a child grows older they can forget they ever stuttered there can be no better result than that. We know from the previous information I mentioned that the need for effective communication is more important than ever.
Professor Onslow went on to say that we need to work in teams as well. We need to have professional speech pathologists but, with them, we need to have people with knowledge of psychology to work on the awful impact of the loss of esteem and fear that comes with not being able to communicate effectively. At the University of Sydney, they have a wonderful program in this area that has a multidisciplinary team. It involves people with psychology skills working together with people with speech therapy skills, creating team support that will then lead to a cure. I hesitate to use the word 'cure'. We try to keep away from that term whenever we work on our committee. But I think it is one. I think these young people can achieve a cure. There was much to learn from our community affairs committee inquiry on speech pathology services in Australia; however, this was one of the highlights. We saw professionals working together; we saw young lives changed. In fact, as Tracy Bowden said many years ago, within those modest demountables on the campus of the University of Sydney, children's lives are being changed. They are being changed because they now have the confidence to speak and communicate well and play a positive part in our society.