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Speech therapy demand soars

Jeni Brennan and her son James. Picture: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

The number of WA children with speech and language problems is soaring, with a 15 per cent jump in demand for publicly funded speech therapy in Perth over the past three years.

Almost 7000 children are waiting to be assessed after being referred for speech therapy as increasing demand puts huge pressure on the State's speech therapy services.

Children were facing a wait of up to three years in some areas, for some only to be deemed not a priority or better suited to school-based help because they were older when they reached the top of the waiting list.

The State Government said it had employed 19 more speech pathologists in the metropolitan area since May 2010, bringing the average waiting time down from 19 months to nine months.

Speech pathologists say early intervention is crucial to prevent speech and language difficulties becoming more complex later in a child's life and affecting their education and socialisation.

Penelope Cromack, president of the Private Speech Pathologists Association WA, said time was of the essence.

"Delayed speech and language can go on and cause literacy issues," Ms Cromack said. "The more we are able to sort out when children are younger, the more successful children are at school.

"Speech and language problems also contribute to behavioural difficulties and peer relationship problems."

The long waits for public speech therapy services are forcing many parents to use private speech therapists, paying as much as $90 for a 30-minute session. Speech pathologist Angela Southwell said about 40 per cent of new referrals to her Subiaco practice came from parents unable or unwilling to wait for public services to become available.

"Children have speech and language difficulties for a number of reasons, and isn't always identifiable," Ms Southwell said.

"Early detection of difficulties has certainly increased in recent times and public awareness has broadened, leading to an increased number of speech pathology referrals.

"Parents will find a way to make it work and it often means going without somewhere else."

Jeni Brennan noticed her son James, now 5, was not learning to speak as his two older siblings had. At 2½, he was struggling to put two words together.

Mrs Brennan took him to a private speech pathologist, who referred James to the public health services.

"We were told the waiting time would be 14 months when we first rang up but it turned out to be 18 months," she said.

Not wanting to wait, Mrs Brennan paid for private speech therapy. Last year James was having three $95 private sessions a fortnight and still has weekly private sessions, which have improved his speech.

"There is no doubt the continual cost of therapy puts pressure on families," she said. "For us, James' speech was a priority and it was something we were not willing to compromise on."

More than 12,000 children are receiving publicly funded speech therapy in Perth's metropolitan area.

The Government said there were also other government and non-government services providing speech therapy to WA children.