From Aristotle to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, philosophers have long hailed speech capability as the skill that separates humans from animals. Clear, eloquent speech is a powerful skill, crucial to achieving success in many professions and roles in our society.
It’s easier for some than for others.
There are myriad reasons why a child might develop a speech impediment or pathology. Some children mispronounce sounds because of a hearing or auditory processing issue. Other children have cognitive or psychological issues that affect their ability to speak clearly and confidently. Most speech therapists in Israel tend to work with clients on the cognitive-linguistic level—practicing language skills with their clients, enriching vocabulary, etc.
The problem is that there is another, very common reason why children have trouble speaking clearly—a reason often ignored or neglected in Israeli institutions. Speaking is a complex fine motor skill. It requires around 100 muscles in the face, lips, neck, chest and tongue to make very precise movements in perfect harmony. Some children, particularly those who suffer from other disorders that affect muscle tone and fine motor movement (such as Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy), have trouble speaking clearly due to a challenge that is strictly physiological—not cognitive or linguistic.
Freyda Weis (MSci) is a speech pathologist who specializes in oral motor therapy. Trained in the USA, she was dismayed to discover how little regard speech pathologists had for this field in the clinics where she worked. She witnessed countless patients coming in once or twice a week and making very little progress as their therapists addressed only the linguistic aspects of speech and neglected the motor aspect. She saw the same issue in rehabilitative preschools and daycares where children received speech therapy as part of their normal curriculum. “Kids can acquire linguistic skills in so many other contexts,” says Freyda. “If it’s just a matter of listening and practicing speech, they can do that with their teachers or with their parents. Speech therapists are supposed to be able to identify and address the root cause of the pathology.”
Seeing the dire need for more information and tools in this field, Freyda founded Al-Peh as a resource for all oral motor therapy in Israel. “The way I see it, it’s not just a business—it’s a movement,” she says, “to promote the study and practice of oral sensory motor therapy in Israel.” Aside from her clinical work with patients, she imports dozens of oral sensory tools unavailable anywhere else in Israel, and offers workshops, training courses and other resources to therapists and clients. Therapists also call or email to consult her on this area of expertise. Some of the courses and workshops she teaches herself; for some, she flies in experts from the US. Originally, the workshops were intended for therapists only, but parents of children with speech issues started coming as well—because the therapists treating their children were not addressing the motor aspect of their child’s problem.
Oral motor therapy isn’t just about speech. Individuals with motor-related speech pathologies often experience difficulty feeding, chewing and swallowing. For this reason, oral motor therapy can also be beneficial to children who aren’t even close to speaking age yet. Infants who experience digestive discomfort or low weight gain are often diagnosed with colic, allergies or other digestive issues, when in fact, the problem might be caused by a motor problem—weak suck reflex, for example. Freyda is one of only two speech therapists trained in NOMAS (Neonatal Oral Motor Assesment Scale), and one of the only therapists qualified to work with preemies on feeding issues. Freyda is also a trained lactation coach. Freyda points out that in the United States, speech pathologists need to take a certain number of CEUs (continuing education units) to maintain their licenses. This is not true in Israel. “This is a field where you need to constantly update and enrich your knowledge,” she says. “Our job is to help people. How can we help them if we don’t have the skills?”
In light of this, Freyda urges parents to learn about their child’s problem and find a therapist who has the right specialization. Not all speech therapists available through HMOs or institutions specialize in the relevant fields. Sometimes what the HMO or institution will offer is also helpful to the child, but oral motor therapy is necessary for clear speech and for safe and efficient swallowing. Freyda is happy to offer private supplementary therapy in such cases. Freyda also urges parents to take an active role in their child’s speech therapy, continuing the work at home.
Freyda Weis is a Jerusalem-based speech therapist and one of Israel's few experts on Oral Facial Myology. Freyda offers treatment of speech and swallowing disorders to individuals of all ages in the Jerusalem area. She can be reached at 052-5287-726.