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Look Who's Talking

For kids who struggle to speak, Michelle Gifford is there to help

Michelle Gifford instructs 6-year-old twins Keaton, center, and Elliot on holding their chins back so that their tongues are in a proper speaking for enunciation. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Michelle Gifford instructs 6-year-old twins Keaton, center, and Elliot on holding their chins back so that their tongues are in a proper speaking for enunciation.

Pull your lips back and put your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Lift your lateral margins, blow air across the tip of the tongue without touching — ssss — before immediately lifting your tongue to touch and aspirate quickly out of your lungs — tuh. Then, bring your tongue all the way to the back of your throat, against your soft pallet — errrr — and open your mouth wide, drop everything you’ve been doing — eh — widening, lifting then you have to close (don’t lift up the side margins anymore!) and only hit the tip — teh.

You’ve just spoken the word “straight.” Exhausting, isn’t it?

Forming words to speak seems so simple, reflexive almost, when you’re doing it in everyday conversation. But in reality, that ease is a result of years of practice, learning (literally) at the feet of adults, mimicking their movements and sounds.

Somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of children, however, have trouble picking up what comes naturally to others.

“Basically, their communication is not developing as it should,” says Michelle Gifford, clinical director for RiteCare Spokane.

RiteCare provides free speech therapy for children ages 2 to 7 who are struggling with language or speech delays.

Gifford’s passion for helping children (“kiddos,” as she refers to them) comes from numerous places. She knows what it’s like to struggle — as a child, she encountered significant academic problems until third grade, when she was diagnosed as legally blind. But it was the troubles of the first kid she helped out, Andrew, which seem to have nudged her in the direction she eventually took.

After graduating from Eastern Washington with a bachelor’s degree in English, Gifford took a job assisting a child at Bemiss Elementary. It wasn’t done in a professional capacity as a therapist or an analyst; she acted as a sort of friend, checking in on him and hanging out with him at recess.“They said he was mentally retarded and had a behavioral problem,” she says. “Watching him, I just didn’t believe that was the case.”

It turned out Andrew had a number of communication delays — social communication, listening, speaking, writing. What he didn’t have was a deficit in intellect or ability. People just assumed he did. Gifford says it was a struggle getting him through school, but he’s now doing “very well” in college after a stint as a medic in the Army.

That type of intervention, where children are misdiagnosed or underestimated because of communication difficulties, is one Gifford feels passionately about. Many kids are labeled with behavioral problems, when in fact they may just be acting out as a result of communication problems.

“That communication may not be coming smoothly and easily, so that child may develop behaviors to compensate for that,” she says. “And then everybody’s in a bad situation.”

That, in part, is what drew her to Rite Care — integrating the therapy with the children’s lives. Because the center offers its services for free, there’s no concern about running out of insurance money to pay for treatment. And since they’re able to keep the number of kids to a manageable level, RiteCare’s therapists are able to give the children the attention they need — usually two hours a week for up to two years.

But what really sets RiteCare apart, says Gifford, is the attention given to the parents, teaching them how to teach their kids.

“The more people who know how to help, the quicker that child can get what [he or she] needs,” she says. “And [RiteCare’s] model really fits that parent education idea.” The bottom line, says Gifford, is that with everyone involved in the child’s life focused on helping, the child has a much better chance of succeeding in different environments.

“Once the child starts to succeed, even if communication is really hard for them and it breaks down a lot,” she says, “they will work very hard because they want that tool [to communicate].”