Helping Children With Speech Problems in Rural Australia

We discuss the difficulty of getting help for children’s speech problems in rural Australia, and how technology is helping bridge the gap.

Some young children will struggle with speech difficulties when they’re learning to talk. Getting help for these children is particularly challenging for families that live in rural and remote areas, but Bupa Health Foundation and Royal Far West are working together to help make a difference.

Common speech problems

According to Jessica McGrath, a speech pathologist with Royal Far West in Sydney, the main difficulties children can face when learning to talk include:
  • Developing speech sounds: finding it difficult to pronounce certain words and sounds. 
  • Language: having trouble understanding and expressing themselves, including limited vocabulary, grammar and sentence-forming abilities.
  • Stuttering
  • Literacy: problems with spelling, reading and accessing the curriculum. 
  • Conversation skills: having trouble starting a conversation, staying on topic or taking turns.
McGrath says that these difficulties, when left untreated, can cause social isolation and anxiety, behavioural difficulties, loss of learning opportunities and reduced academic achievement and career prospects.
For children in rural areas, getting access to help is particularly problematic, due to the often limited availability of local services and long travel times to access services in capital or regional cities. High staff turnover in rural positions can also mean a lack of continuity, and long waiting lists and services that are restricted to certain populations, such as preschoolers only.

Bridging the gap

boy on computer
The Bupa Health Foundation, one of the leading charitable foundations dedicated to health in Australia, is committed to improving the health of the Australian community and ensuring the sustainability of affordable healthcare. The Foundation’s partnership with Royal Far West helps to enable its many initiatives and programs that help children with speech issues in country Australia.
“Royal Far West liaises with local schools and professionals to implement goals and strategies,” explains McGrath. “We provide video conferencing to local schools with involvement from teachers, principals, learning support staff and parents.” 
Among the programs in operation are: 
  • Telecare: A pioneering speech-therapy program developed by Royal Far West, in which regular therapy sessions are conducted via video link from Sydney in partnership with local schools. Sessions include speech pathology, as well as occupational therapy, psychology and dietetics.
  • Healthy Kids Bus Stop (HKBS): A screening service where a bus travels to remote towns to offer tests of speech, hearing, vision and general health, and occupational therapy. Children who are identified as having difficulties are referred to appropriate local services, or to the Royal Far West Paediatric Development Program where necessary.
  • Paediatric Development Program (PDP): Involves children and their families travelling to Royal Far West in Manly for a week-long stay, during which they have access to a multidisciplinary team that includes speech pathologists, paediatricians, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists and educators. These professionals take a holistic approach to the child's health, which allows for diagnosis clarification and the ongoing management of health problems. As part of this service, intensive intervention is offered every four to six months, which aims to link families with local services wherever available and provide support around accessing available funding. 

Positive outcomes

“The holistic nature of these programs, which look not just at speech in isolation, but also other factors that may be contributing, can identify aspects of a child and family’s strengths and weaknesses.”
A comprehensive screening service such as HKBS helps to bring in more children who need intervention and link them to the appropriate local services where needed. Programs such as Telecare, which are delivered in the local community, also help to upskill teachers, build relationships and educate local professionals.
boys playing football in school yard

About Royal Far West

Royal Far West is a non-government organisation that provides health services to children living in rural and remote New South Wales. Its mission is to make an outstanding contribution to the health and wellbeing of children in regional New South Wales and ultimately to improve the health of country children.
To achieve this, Royal Far West works in partnership with families and their local health and education providers to complement existing services within the community. Every year, thousands of country children who have ongoing developmental, behavioural, learning, or emotional or mental health disorders, and limited access to local services, benefit from the organisation's integrated clinical and educational model of care.

For more information about Royal Far West, visit their website here.   

Bupa Health Foundation

Bupa Health Foundation is one of Australia’s leading corporate foundations dedicated to health. Thanks to the support of Bupa, over the past 10 years the Bupa Health Foundation has supported more than 90 health and care projects focused on turning outstanding Australian research into real health and care improvements.

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