16 March marks World Swallowing Awareness Day.
Although swallowing is probably a function that many of us don’t give too much thought about, it’s vital for life and wellbeing. In fact, the average Australian swallows between 500 and 700 times a day and the process involves 26 muscles.
Dysphagia is difficulty with swallowing or an inability to swallow, and it can happen for many reasons. Speech and Language Pathologists are key when it comes to helping children with Dysphagia in schools, beside many other schools staff. These professionals help with swallowing across public services, including in our health system.
In public schools Speech and Language Pathologists write a meal management plan, which the staff who work with the child help to implement. It’s all about these children eating and drinking safely at school.
We chatted with DECYP Advanced Skills Speech Pathologist Natalie Bown about the work that’s done in schools to help students with swallowing difficulties.
“People are often surprised when we’re involved in meal management plans in school and a part of ensuring children are eating safely. Swallowing, being able to enjoy food, is something we all do as part of our everyday life, so it can be hard for people who have swallowing difficulties. Eating is part of our social experience.”
“Our role is to make children are safe, and make sure they’re able to have similar but modified eating experiences, which are still enjoyable.”
“We provide meal management plans. We encourage these children to eat at the same time as their peers, sitting with them, providing communication supports so they can chat while eating, when it’s safe to do so.”
Speech and Language Pathologists also have a lot of expertise in how to manage swallowing difficulties, so they help with food modifications and providing different options for people that are having these difficulties.
“A lot of neurological events can affect people and their ability to swallow. Some people are born having difficulties, and sometimes there are other factors leading to these issues, which are acquired. There are many children who have developmental disorder that make swallowing difficult.”
“There are children in most schools that require a meal management plan and we’re responsible for those. To make sure everyone is trained properly, for example with choking, that the program is written and followed at school.
Many school staff are a part of ensuring this plan is implemented, including Teacher Assistants, Support Teachers and Teachers.
“Teacher Assistants do most of the day-to-day management. The plan often involves modifications to diets, include removing bread because we’re finding that’s what most people have the most difficulty with and it can cause the most harm for people with swallowing difficulties. Food like grapes and ice cream are other difficult foods.”
Speech Pathologist Tracey Hanigan says many students can experience swallowing difficulties for many different reasons.
“Students who may have difficulty controlling the muscles for swallowing (for example, students with cerebral palsy), or students who experience weakness of these muscles (for example, students with Down Syndrome). It might also include students with significant food aversions, which can make meals a stressful time for them, or students who have sensory difficulties and might put too much food in their mouth at once (for example, students with autism).
“These issues place these students at greater risk of choking difficulties.”
A big shout out to all those who are working to help Tasmanians with Dysphagia across life stages and in many public services. Thanks for the work you do to support the wellbeing of Tasmanians.