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Growing up in the age of COVID: What are the potential impacts on a child’s communication skills with mask wearing?

Mask wearing is an added challenge for some children
Updated: Sep. 27, 2021 at 5:15 PM EDT
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GENESEE CO., Mich. (WJRT) - More than a year and a half into the pandemic, it looks like masks are not going away any time soon. Health experts have been clear on the benefits, stating they are an added tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But wearing them has brought on additional challenges.

ABC12 News took a closer look at the unintended consequences for children when it comes to communication.

“It’ll be interesting. We might not know the effects of all this for another year or so,” said Glenda Locke, owner of the Speech Language Learning Center in Flint Township.

Locke has been a speech language pathologist for more than 30 years.

“We work on anything from articulation, to kids on the Autism Spectrum,” she said.

Locke says masks are a major challenge in her line of work.

“Just adjusting to, ‘Okay. I have something blocking my face. I talk all day for a living.’ It’s exhausting,” said Locke.

She fully recognizes the need for them. But after a year of closed schools and kids learning from home, she noticed a big impact on children coming to the center.

“A lot of these kids were severely delayed. And you kind of go, ‘Woah! What has the last year done?’ A lot of social skills have been dampened. These kids didn’t have anybody to play with, except if they have siblings. But what if they don’t have siblings? They’re an only child?”

Locke says a combination of being away from school services and now, mask-wearing in person, has slowed progress.

“The early developing sounds are harder to hear. Or if a mask fits too tight, you get this muffled sound and they kids are talking like that. And it’s very difficult for us to interpret or parents to interpret or for a grandparent to interpret,” said Locke.

She says facial cues are an important part of learning communication from infancy into childhood.

“We do all this, ‘Ohhh!’ You know, your eyes get real big, you make these facial expressions, your mouth. This has taken all that away,” said Locke.

The impact is being looked at by researchers.

A study on mask-wearing from the University of Toronto, that is still being reviewed, shows face-recognition abilities dropped about 20-percent for school-aged children between six and 14.

“Reading those facial cues is very important,” she said.

But it is even more important for Glenda’s clients, like 7-year-old Stryker Smith.

“He is a trooper,” said Locke. “He relies on a lot of cues from a lot of different people.”

Stryker was diagnosed with Apraxia at age three.

“There’s a disconnect between the brain and the muscles of the mouth,” said Locke.

“Chances are he’ll be in speech therapy most of his life,” said Stryker’s mom, April.

April says at first, she was worried about mask-wearing with her son.

“It’s hard to understand him without a mask. So then you put the mask on...and I feel like it’s hard to understand me, with a mask on,” said April.

There are work-arounds that help, like the clear masks Glenda uses with clients.

“There’s these types of masks that have the clear in the front so that they can see us and see some of our facial expressions,” said Locke.

Stryker is determined as ever. He looks forward to coming to therapy, especially burning off energy in the sensory gym.

“When you’re able to play and not think about your talking, you talk better,” said April.

Stryker says his favorite activity to do in the gym is the climbing wall.

His mom says she has been inspired by her son.

“It’s made me realize not to take things for granted,” she said.

She says a mask will not stand in Stryker’s way.

“I think the kids are much more resilient than we are as adults. I think it was harder on us than it was the kids,” said Locke.

Research echoes that sentiment. A senior scientist with the Yale Center for Children says kids are adaptable because their nervous system is still very much growing and has a better ability to adapt than an adult’s.

Stryker is proof.

“He’s overcome it very well. So, I’m very proud of him,” said April.

Glenda says while some kids will be required to wear masks at school and will be missing out on that face-to-face time, they can make up for it at home.

She says for parents with younger children, make sure you are giving them extra time and attention to keep their communication skills on track.

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