Report Details Rising Trends in Children’s Communication Disorders
Dr. Christine Dollaghan
A panel of national experts — which included a UT Dallas professor — recently released a report that said the number of children diagnosed with speech and language disorders in the U.S. is increasing.
The committee was organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine at the request of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Policy. The Social Security office has seen an increase in the number of children receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for speech and language disorders and wanted to get the facts from industry experts.
Dollaghan said it was an honor to work with experts from a variety of areas on the report. The committee met five times in person and numerous times via conference call over the last 12 months.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to sit in a room with a lot of really smart people, doing this work. It was an amazing group,” she said.
The Social Security Administration commissioned the study as the result of a newspaper article that reported an increase in the number of children receiving SSI. The committee was charged with looking at the prevalence of severe speech and language disorders in the U.S., and comparing that to the increasing number of children who receive benefits through the SSI program.
“Communication skills are crucial to how children learn and grow and interact with other people, but communication disorders may be less ‘visible’ than other disabilities. So part of the committee’s task was to clarify the definition and impact of severe speech and language disorders in children,” Dollaghan said.
As an example of such disorders, some children are not able to produce individual speech sounds or sequences of speech sounds, Dollaghan said. Others may have extreme difficulty understanding what people are saying to them, or expressing their own ideas and emotions in ways that others can understand. Although treatment can improve children’s skills, she said severe disorders in understanding or producing language tend to persist throughout childhood, threatening children’s academic, emotional and social outcomes.
The number of children who receive Supplemental Security Income for communication disorders increased nearly 30 percent over the last decade, according to the report.
In its report, the group said the prevalence of speech and language disorders increased 26 to 56 percent over a four-year period, depending on the data used. The report said this trend paralleled the increase in the SSI program, which has seen the total number of children receiving SSI for speech and language disorders grow nearly 30 percent in the last decade.
The report said there are two factors that could be responsible for such an increase in the overall trend:
- The introduction of a new impairment code for speech and language disorders in 1994.
- The continuing eligibility of children whose severe speech and language disorders persist throughout childhood.
In addition, the report noted that the majority of children who receive SSI benefits are from families with household incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The scholars said that after the 2008-2009 recession in the U.S., more children would have met the financial eligibility for SSI.
Dollaghan said she was impressed by the thoroughness used by Social Security Administration case managers as they seek to determine children’s eligibility for SSI.
“Although it’s a huge program, the committee found that SSI’s methods for evaluating children were in line with best practices in speech-language pathology,” she said. “I was somewhat surprised and positively impressed. It’s not a simple task they face.”
Dollaghan, who is based at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, is well-known for her work in the nature, identification and outcomes of language and other communication disorders in young children. But she said she appreciated the opportunity to interact with scholars who specialize in other areas, such as pediatrics, epidemiology, law, public policy and poverty issues.
“As an expert, you often focus on your own little window into the world,” Dollaghan said. “This was an unusual opportunity to work with people who each had their own lens on children’s development — to see through their windows. It gave me a bigger sense of complexity and interconnectedness among all these other parts of the system.”
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].