Covid-19 pandemic damaged children’s speech and language skills, UAE doctors say

Specialists report greater demand for speech therapy and development sessions for children deprived of school routine during the pandemic

Children under the age of five could suffer developmental problems owing to long periods of social confinement during the pandemic.

Paediatricians and speech therapists reported an increase in the number of young children requiring sessions after spending much of last year learning from home.

Some children and infants failed to meet their developmental milestones because of social distancing, restrictions on play dates and nurseries and minimal contact with extended families, experts said.

Although Covid-19 has not had much of a direct impact on children, it has delayed their development in many cases

Dr Anuradha Ajesh

Face masks have also slowed the development of some infants, who rely on facial expressions to communicate.

Mayssoun Jaber is a speech and language therapist and clinical manager at KidsFirst Medical Centre in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi, a centre for children with learning difficulties. She said there was a notable difference between the levels of work therapists were doing before the pandemic and now.

“It was difficult for us to complete assessments of children who may need help, due to restrictions during the worst months of the pandemic,” she said.

“If a child had issues, there was no opportunity to step in to make a diagnosis and begin any corrective therapy, especially for early years children, as they were not attending school or had limited social interaction when these issues would typically be picked up.

“They had limited exposure to other children, even within their own families.

Mayssoun Jaber of KidsFirst Medical Center in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi. Therapists reported an increase in the number of children needing speech therapy and development sessions.Victor Besa / The National.     
Mayssoun Jaber of KidsFirst Medical Centre in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi. Therapists reported an increase in the number of children coming to them for speech therapy and development sessions.Victor Besa / The National.

“This contributed to delays in language development in some children and also delayed any face-to-face assessment.”

A UK report by the Education Endowment Foundation found protective measures implemented to reduce Covid-19 infection rates deprived younger children of social contact required for healthy development.

In 58 primary schools assessed in the UK, 76 per cent of pupils starting school in September 2020 needed more support with communication than in previous years.

Ninety-six per cent of schools were concerned about pupils' speech and language development.

It also found more children aged between four and five needed help with language and vocabulary.

Doctors said poor language development could have long-lasting effects in adolescence and adulthood.

“Although Covid-19 has not had much of a direct impact on children, it has delayed their development in many cases,” said Dr Anuradha Ajesh, a paediatrician at Bareen International Hospital in MBZ City, Abu Dhabi.

“It has mainly impacted [children’s] personal, social and language development because of protective confinement and the resulting social isolation.

“We have seen many children with speech delays in our clinics.

Babies use facial expressions to communicate and wearing face masks has hampered this.

“Older children have been denied the opportunities to play with others.”

The first five years of life are critical to healthy growth in four main areas of development: physical; language and communication; cognitive; and social or emotional development.

Children unable to express themselves or interact with others are more likely to experience problems with reading or socialising and may suffer mental health issues.

“When younger children cannot go outside to play with their friends, they become stressed so that has also created problems,” Dr Ajesh said.

“Because of this we have seen some children stop talking or communicating altogether.

“It can be rectified at home, with parents finding time to speak with their children or arrange video calls with other family or friends who they may relate to.

“Video chats have been a good way to maintain relationships during the pandemic.

“Serious speech impediments or developmental delays can be rectified with counselling and therapy.”

Beverly Payne, from Ireland, was concerned when her youngest daughter, Aiya, showed signs of delayed development.

“My eight-year-old had sensory issues, but we were not aware that was anything to worry about,” said Ms Payne, who lives in Dubai.

“A week before Covid-19 hit, she brought home a book from school she had been reading for a year.

“When we began online learning, we realised she had other issues, like dyslexia, as she could not read the computer screen."

She could have had help with these issues if she were attending school in person, but it was much harder while at home, said Ms Payne.

“Aiya missed out on so much during the pandemic as she could not do the work on her computer.”

Therapists at the Wilson Centre in Dubai found Aiya responded to daily sessions and that improved her learning and development.

“One morning, we sat down for breakfast and Aiya said she could taste food for the first time,” Ms Payne said.

“We had no idea that one of the sensory issues she had was a lack of taste."

All of a sudden, she started to read again, recognise colours and improve her social interaction that had been dormant during the pandemic, Ms Payne said.

“Something just clicked in her brain, and as a parent that is a huge relief," she said.

"Parents in this situation can feel lost, but there is hope."

Disinfection work at a UAE nursery in pictures

Updated: May 16, 2021 08:32 AM


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