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Clinical Intelligence

Nicola Wooles, Joanna Swann and Emma Hoskison

Speech and language delay in children:

a case to learn from

INTRODUCTION On follow-up at 2 years, 6 months, his

Speech and language delay in children is vocabulary had expanded to >100 words,
a common presentation to primary care and audiogram showed thresholds <20 dB
either directly to the GP or through the in the normal range.
health visitor, affecting approximately 6%
of pre-school children.1 Young children, ASSESSMENT AND DIFFERENTIAL
particularly those with speech delay, can DIAGNOSIS
be difficult to examine. Differentiation Speech and language delay must be
between an isolated pathology and those separated from variation in speech
with concurrent global developmental delay development, and is defined by children
is crucial. This article presents an example falling behind recognised milestones.
of a common case, considers the learning Regression or loss of speech and language
points, and highlights management are particularly concerning.
principles. Initially, a history with a focus on
identifying a cause for the speech delay
CASE HISTORY should be taken, including pregnancy and
A 2-year-old boy presented to primary birth history, developmental milestones,
care with fewer words than his peers, and family history.
and with difficulty in non-family members Aspects of the antenatal history that
understanding him. On closer questioning may impact on newborn hearing must
he had <10 words of speech. He was born at be explored. These include TORCH
39 weeks by normal delivery, not requiring interuterine infections (toxoplasmosis,
special care baby unit, and passed his rubella, cytomegalovirus, and herpes
newborn hearing screening. Review of his simplex) and maternal drug exposure.
Personal Child Health Record (red book) Important aspects of the perinatal history
showed consistent growth along centile include prematurity, hypoxia, birth trauma,
lines, and other developmental milestones and neonatal jaundice. Newborn hearing
attained. In the consultation room he played screening does not occur worldwide and
appropriately, made good eye contact, and should not be assumed in births outwith
followed instructions: identifying his nose the UK. General maternal health is useful,
and ears when asked. On examination, he particularly for the exclusion of conditions
had normal facies, and otoscopy revealed such as hypothyroidism.
bilateral dull tympanic membranes. The child’s medical history should be
N Wooles, MRCS(ENT), ST4 otolaryngology; Referral to audiology was made and age- covered, including conditions such as
E Hoskison, MA, FRCS, ST8 otolaryngology, appropriate free-field hearing testing with meningitis, head trauma, and seizures, and
Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and tympanometry performed. He had hearing exposure to ototoxic drugs. Developmental
Neck Surgery, University Hospitals Coventry
thresholds of >40 dB (mild-to-moderate milestones should be noted, including
and Warwickshire, Coventry. J Swann, MBChB,
GPST2, Bridgeton Health Centre, Glasgow. hearing loss) with flat tympanograms social interactions with peers and family.
Address for correspondence indicating a conductive loss in keeping with This is not only to explore the possibility
Nicola Wooles, Department of otitis media with effusion (OME). of a global developmental delay/disorder
Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, For 3 months the child was actively and the possibility of an underlying
Coventry CV2 2DX, UK. observed and then referred to the ear, psychological diagnosis, but may also
nose, and throat consultant. With evidence highlight deprivation and neglect.
Submitted: 12 March 2017; Editor’s response:
6 April 2017; final acceptance: 9 June 2017.
of persistent conductive hearing loss, he It is important to enquire about any family
©British Journal of General Practice 2018; was offered hearing aids or grommets, history of hearing loss and speech delay
68: 47–48. in keeping with National Institute for including the possibility of consanguinuity, Health and Care Excellence guidelines.2 which may point to metabolic or recessive
His parents elected for grommet insertion. conditions.

British Journal of General Practice, January 2018 47

Figure 1. Venn diagram demonstrating the
different causes of speech and language
delay (adapted from the Oxford Handbook of
Psychological Maturation delay
Paediatrics4). OME = otitis media with effusion.
TORCH = toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus, Deprivation and
and herpes simplex. neglect
Selective mutism

REFERENCES Autism spectrum

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• Maternal Down’s syndrome, cleft palate
uk/guidance/cg60 (accessed 13 Oct 2017). Meningitis hypothyroidism Sensorineural:
3. Leung AK, Kao CP. Evaluation and Neurological
• Ototoxic drugs
management of the child with speech delay.
• head trauma
Am Fam Physician 1999; 59(11): 3121–3128.
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handbook of paediatrics. Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 2008.
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assessment of children. BMJ 2013; 346: e8687. In multilingual children total words across of OME with appropriate intervention.
all languages should be counted, and will Other causes that should not be missed
6. Beitchman JH. Summary of the practice
parameters for the assessment and treatment often compensate for the perceived delay.5 include global developmental delay and
of children and adolescents with language and Examination should be global, observing psychiatric disorders such as autism
learning disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc behaviour but with a focus on otoscopy, spectrum disorder, both of which will
Psychiatry 1998; 37(10): 1117–1119.
which may provide instant diagnosis of require a multidisciplinary approach with
7. Fenson L, Dale PS, Reznick JS, et al. Variability enhanced potential outcomes for the child
common conditions such as OME. Observed
in early communicative development. Monogr
Soc Res Child Dev 1994; 59(5): 1–173. or formal neurological assessment of fine if support and treatment are offered earlier.
8. Mandel EM, Doyle WJ, Winther B, Alper CM. and gross motor skills may highlight a Ultimately these children will require input
The incidence, prevalence and burden of OM global development delay, with head from a child development centre.
in unselected children aged 1–8 years followed circumference a useful adjunct. Children with craniofacial abnormalities,
by weekly otoscopy through the ‘common cold’ There are multiple causes of speech for example, Down’s syndrome, may
season. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol 2008;
72(4): 491–499.
delay, which can be split into psychological, suffer from both conductive deafness
neurological, and otological (Figure 1). There and development delay, which will be
9. Zielhuis GA, Straatman H, Rach GH, van den
Broek P. Analysis and presentation of data on is a known association between confirmed confounded if not treated.
the natural course of otitis media with effusion speech and language delay and psychiatric In the case described the child was
in children. Int J Epidemiol 1990; 19(4): 1037– disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, suffering from speech delay secondary to
with up to 50% occurring concurrently.6 OME. This is the commonest cause of hearing
10. Gates GA, Avery CA, Prihoda T, Cooper JC In syndromic children, especially impairment in the developed world8 and is
Jr. Effectiveness of adenoidectomy and
tympanostomy tubes in the treatment of those with craniofacial abnormalities the reversible. OME has two peaks of incidence
chronic otitis media with effusion. N Engl J Med speech delay may be multifactorial and a at 2 and 5 years.9 The current treatment
1987; 317(23): 1444–1451. multidisciplinary approach with multiple strategy for OME is grommet insertion
11. Daniel M, Vaghela H, Philpott C, et al. Does referrals required. after a recommended 3-month period of
the benefit of adenoidectomy in addition to One of the challenges in assessing a watchful waiting2 to allow for spontaneous
ventilation tube insertion persist long term?
Clin Otol 2006; 31(6): 580.
child with speech and language delay is effusion resolution. Hearing aids are a non-
that the order of learning and speech and surgical alternative but are generally seen
language acquisition is fixed, but there is as socially unacceptable. Twenty-five per
significant variation in timings described.7 cent of children will require further grommet
Patient consent Up to 60% of children with speech delay do insertion within 2 years of the first,10 with a
The case presented here is fictional and not require intervention and the problem mean number of grommet insertions per
therefore consent was not required. resolves spontaneously by 3 years of age.1 child of 2.1.11 This emphasises the recurrent
It is therefore important to undertake an nature of OME and the importance of close
Provenance individualised approach to each child. follow-up for these children.
Freely submitted; externally peer reviewed. Speech and language delay may be an
Competing interests MANAGEMENT early presenting feature in children with
Diagnosis of the underlying causation of global developmental delay, and provides
The authors have declared no competing
speech delay is the priority and guides a crucial early opportunity to intervene and
management. All children with suspected provide multidisciplinary support. Prompt
Discuss this article speech delay should be referred for audiological assessment is essential in all
Contribute and read comments about this audiometry to exclude hearing loss as this is children with speech and language delay to
article: a potentially reversible cause in the setting exclude reversible causes.

48 British Journal of General Practice, January 2018