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SPEEDY babies – a new behavioural syndrome

23 April 2009 Helsingin yliopisto (University of Helsinki)

Children’s speech and language disorders caused by unknown factors are common. The disorders vary in type and manifest themselves differently in different ages. Delayed motor development is widely known to coexist with speech and language disorders. However, hardly any attention has been paid to children in whom delayed speech development is associated with learning to walk unassisted at an early stage.
 
Dr Marja-Leena Haapanen from the Phoniatric Division of the Helsinki University Central Hospital has studied and described these children and observed a recurrent pattern in their behavioural phenotype. The children were examined by a multi-disciplinary research group over an extensive period in time.

Usually these children, known as SPEEDY babies, have good language comprehension skills, but their speech is very unclear, although they may start speaking early on and can be quite talkative. In some cases, the speech production is delayed, the child speaks less, and the speech maybe unclear, especially when speaking long sentences. What makes the child’s speech unintelligible are words and sentences that are produced incorrectly, but each time in a different way, in addition to consistent sound distortion. Consistent sound distortions are associated with tongue dysfunction and are manifest in sounds in which the tip of the tongue is used.

SPEEDY babies develop motor skills early, and often start walking unassisted at ten months. They are often avid runners, climbers and eager to jump and skip, and all in all, are quite agile and physically active. They are usually in good physical health, and do not typically suffer from respiratory infections, ear infections or allergies. The intellectual skills structure is usually divided so that their vision-based performance is above the average for their age group and better than their linguistic performance.

According to Dr Haapanen, some one to two per cent of children are SPEEDY babies. “The phenotype of these children combines three qualities: atypically speedy motor development, unclear speech, and tongue carriage dysfunction,” Haapanen says. “These characteristics seem to form a triad to the extent that we can talk about a syndrome that has been named ‘SPEEDY baby’.”

The term SPEEDY refers to speed in the development of motor skills as well as problems related to speech development (SPEE – speech and DY – developmental verbal dyspraxia, dysphasia, tongue dysfunction).

Dr Haapanen points out that physical activeness and unclear speech may have adverse psychosocial effects and overshadow these children’s true skills. “SPEEDY babies may not receive the recognition they deserve for their advanced motor skills and activeness and intellectual performance, because these may be overshadowed by their problems, which cause trouble and disappointments,” Haapanen says. “It would be important to accurately identify this particular syndrome in these children, so that their parents and other carers could receive appropriate and timely information and the children could thereby have the support they need.”

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