U. researchers: More than 6 percent of kids afflicted with communication disorder

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For the first time, researchers in Utah have estimated the number of children in the state with communication disorders.

More than 6 percent of school-age children have language development, articulation, voice or stuttering problems that require help from specially trained therapists, according to a study that will be published today.

But there is a shortage of speech-language pathologists to help these students, which is particularly troubling as the number of children with autism grows, according to researchers. Most children with autism spectrum disorders have communication problems, too.

"If you have 6 percent of your population with communication disorders, that means those children will need some kind of treatment," said Judith Pinborough-Zimmerman, lead author of the study, published online in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

"I hope [the study] provides a justification for services and training for more providers," said Pinborough-Zimmerman, an assistant professor in the University of Utah's psychiatry department.

The study found 6.3 percent of 8-year-olds from Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties have communication disorders. That's about the same amount found in studies published in the late 1990s in other states.

The rate among Utah boys is almost twice the rate as girls and the rate among whites is also higher. Researchers aren't sure why.

Jocelyn Taylor, who coordinates communication disorders and autism programs for the Utah State Office of Education, wasn't surprised by the findings about prevalence. Communication disorders are 8.5 times more prevalent than autism, according to the study.

"We are scrambling in Utah to find enough qualified speech-language pathologists," said Taylor, who was not involved in the research. "Teachers do a good job finding kids. We just have to find people to be able to provide those services."

Legally, schools must help every child identified as having a communication disorder, Taylor noted. But while the preferred caseload for pathologists is 60 children, Utah's load can range from 40 to 90 children per therapist, she said.

To alleviate the shortage, the state school board recently approved a controversial program to create new speech-pathologist assistant positions. Those jobs will require bachelor's degrees instead of the master's degrees required of licensed pathologists.

Bruce Smith, chairman of the University of Utah's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, said he understands the need for the new position but sees it as a step backward.

He said children with disorders won't be getting the same level of services.

Taylor attributes some of the need for more therapists to the spike in autism cases. Today's study found that 89 percent of children with autism-spectrum disorders have communication disorders, too.

"The autism needs are definitely increasing and communication [disorders are] a hallmark of autism," Taylor said.

A report this year found Utah has the third-highest rate of autism among 14 sites involved in a national study. Pinborough-Zimmerman and her co-authors from the U. and Utah Department of Health used the same database to explore communication disorders.