Young children with severe speech delays are waiting for months as their parents struggle to get them the help they need.
It is an Australia-wide problem, according to peak body Speech Pathology Australia, which says there are not enough therapists to cope with the need.
Chief executive Tim Kittel says the situation is a “perfect storm” of an increased uptake in services due to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sophie Pearce’s two sons need speech therapy, but it is almost impossible to get on a waiting list, let alone find an ongoing spot.
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The Melbourne mum finally got her youngest, Max, a recurring appointment after months of trying, only for his therapist to leave the private clinic.
“Max’s sessions are now on hold, which is exceptionally frustrating as we were making fantastic progress,” she said.
Ms Pearce is now on multiple wait lists to get help for the five-year-old’s severe speech impairment.
Her older son Harry also needs therapy, something Ms Pearce learned while attending Max’s sessions, but she can’t even find a clinic to assess him.
“It’s beyond frustrating as I believe it’s impacting his learning,” Ms Pearce told AAP.
“It’s something that should have been picked up on much earlier, but with kinder and prep interrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s only now that it’s been identified.”
Fellow mum-of-two Christine Howard has had a similar experience for her two-year-old, William.
Out of five private clinics she contacted, one put her on a waiting list and another offered her a $570 one-hour assessment.
“I’m very worried if we don’t start speech therapy he could get further delayed,” she said.
Both women said they were relieved they could afford the private system, because the public system would be an even longer wait.
Mr Kittel said because of COVID-19 lockdowns, parents were at home more with their children and had more time to notice that they might be a bit behind. He said more screen time and less interaction with others could also contribute to speech difficulties.
An increased take-up in speech services thanks to the NDIS is also behind increased demand.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Mr Kittel said.
He said extra places had opened up at universities across the country, but there was no short-term fix to the specialist shortage.
A recent survey of online job advertisements shows that those jobs alone would have employed 13 per cent of already employed speech therapists.
Mr Kittel suggested parents should keep trying, even if it meant getting telehealth appointments with a therapist in another city or state, or look to clinics near universities.
He said parents and carers should keep trying, because they would eventually be able to see someone.
A spokesperson for the National Disability Insurance Agency said they were working with the Department of Social Services, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, professional associations as well as state and territory authorities to address supply gaps in disability-related supports.
The NDIS supports more than 530,000 Australians, with more than 297,000 receiving disability-related supports for the first time.
A Department of Social Services spokesperson said the government has committed to the delivery of an NDIS workforce strategy to address workforce and skills gaps, reduce high turnover of staff, and focus on wellbeing and conditions.