As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), I often find myself trying to explain what I do. Our scope of practice is broad and not well understood by the general public. As an SLP specializing in feeding disorders, my work is even harder to explain! To educate the public about what SLPs (and Audiologists) do, the month of May has been designated as Better Hearing & Speech Month. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), BHSM “provides an opportunity to raise awareness about communication disorders and the role of ASHA members in providing life-altering treatment.” I would like to highlight awareness of feeding and swallowing disorders and the impact that SLPs make on one of the most basic, but most important, skills—eating!
After two decades working as a licensed SLP specializing in feeding disorders, I’ve found that providing families with the support they need to help their child grow is the most rewarding part of my job. For families dealing with the significant stress of a child who does not or cannot eat well, having the right kind of support is crucial. Eating is a developmental, lifelong skill, and trust and time are required to build a positive feeding relationship. When parents are anxious about a child’s growth, nutrition, skills, or medical stability, the pressure to ‘get’ the child to eat can feel overwhelming and unfortunately, there are outside forces that can make this anxiety—and ultimately a child’s eating—worse.
“Knowing someone will feed you when you are hungry is how trust and love begin.” – Mister Rogers
This trusting relationship between a parent and a child can be negatively affected by early and prolonged feeding challenges, especially if a control- or compliance-based intervention is utilized in an attempt to push the child to change faster than they can handle. Taking away a child’s bodily autonomy to make them eat ignores the fact that learning to eat requires comfort and confidence; it can also result in insecure attachment and developmental trauma. A child is the only person who knows how their body feels at any given moment, while eating any given food. Feeding is also a relational activity, occurring within the context of a family and the unique characteristics that they bring to the table. Eating is supremely difficult, painful, or uncomfortable for some children and teaching a parent how to be responsive and respectful of their child’s communication during meals creates the foundation for building skills and achieving their goals.
When explaining to parents and other therapists how to support children, I often say “I believe that development through discovery is the way to build trust— trust in me, trust in their caregiver, trust in food, and trust in their own body.” I wrote more extensively about this belief in a post on the blog for my book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating. Through this journey with families, and through trainings for other feeding professionals, I’ve discovered that there is a movement of like-minded therapists who also believe in respecting a child’s autonomy in any type of therapeutic relationship.
It was for this reason that I accepted a position on the Therapy Board for the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective, whose mission is to promote therapy practices and methodologies which presume competence, are non-trauma inducing and which respect human rights, dignity and sensory preferences. This mission is also my mission: to improve the trajectory of a child’s feeding experiences through gentle, respectful, responsive facilitation of growth. Bringing this message to a broader audience is important to me, and the Collective is making that possible.
At the end of my trainings, I always ask my audience to ponder the following. “If you wouldn’t say something or do something to your boss, consider why you would say it or do it to the child in front of you. That child deserves as much respect and consideration as your boss.” As we celebrate all the wonderful work that Speech-Language Pathologists do during the month of May, consider the role that all therapists play in a child’s life. We as therapists have a choice to make each time we interact with a child; will we be building a stronger relationship or damaging it?
About the Author: Jenny McGlothlin, MS, CCC/SLP, CLC, and Therapy Chair for Therapist Neurodiversity Collective, is s a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Certified Lactation Counselor at the University of Texas at Dallas Callier Center for Communication Disorders. She developed the STEPS feeding program at the Callier Center in 2005, where she works with families on a daily basis to foster feeding skills that will serve a child for a lifetime. Jenny has been inducted into the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Hall of Fame for her work in the field.