By Wafir Salih
On a gentle Thursday morning in August, Mary Calvert stood beside the pond in her backyard, peppering flakes of fish food into the water. Ripples formed as exotic, tiny fish gathered around the food, sticking their heads out to eat. Sometimes Calvert brings her young patients here to feed the fish. She points out how the fish pucker their lips as they notice the falling flakes, a sight that aids those struggling with articulating “puh” sounds.
In Calvert’s home office, she talks about her award-winning children’s book, “Bailey Speaks! Book One: Sounds and Gestures” and her career as a speech-language pathologist.
Mary Mayo Balfour Cal-vert is a leading pediatric speech-language therapist and has been in private practice for the past 35 years in Alexandria. She primarily deals with grade school children with speech and/or language delays.
Before going into private practice, Calvert worked at the Children’s Hospital Hearing and Speech Center in Washington, D.C.
“I provided evaluation and therapy for children and was the coordinator for the learning disabilities school. I was also a consultant on the learning disabilities clinic. I have worked in both the Alexandria City and Los Angeles County schools providing diagnostic and placement for students as well as a classroom teacher for children on the autism spectrum,” Calvert said.
Calvert leads most of her therapy sessions from her home office.
“My home office provides a warm and comfortable environment,” she said as she opened a closet to showcase an array of toys. Nearly everything in her office is there to help children with speech and language delays.
“All play is based on language.”
This is also a core theme in Calvert’s book, “Bailey Speaks! Book One: Sounds and Gestures.”
While the book mirrors the simplicity of other children’s books with its rhymes and watercolor illustrations, it stands apart with its scientific foundation. Centered around a boy named David, inspired by Calvert’s son, and Bailey, modeled after her dog, the book interweaves evidence-based speech pathology research into its narrative, serving as an invaluable resource for parents.
“This book is on sounds and gestures. So, this is before the child can talk. A lot of parents don’t realize that body language, facial expressions, gestures, waving – all of that is language communication,” she said.
This message becomes even more pivotal considering recent findings. Research indicates that the pandemic-induced social isolation might have caused a surge in speech and language delays in children.
According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, researchers at Truveta, a healthcare data company, found that delayed speech diagnoses for first time patients “increased by an average of 1.6 times between 2018 through 2019 and 2021 to 2022,” with one-year-old children being the most affected.
A recent poll done by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association also points to this alarming trend. Almost 80% of speech pathologists say they’re dealing with more children suffering from language delays now compared to before the pandemic.
“I would have voted yes,” Calvert said as she held up an article about the poll.
“Parents [weren’t] doing anything out of the stress of COVID and the stress of everything. And so, I understand that. Now they’re just starting to come back,” Calvert added.
In addition to winning an award for “Bailey Speaks! BookOne: Sounds and Gestures” at San Francisco’s Book Festival, Calvert also received two honorable mentions: one from the LA Book Festival and one from the London Book Festival. Grateful for the success and praise the book has received, Calvert said she wants to see the book in places where it can thrive as a helpful resource to parents.
“I would love to see the book in every pediatrician’s office, every preschool, every daycare center, everything as a resource for parents. And every library, of course, as a resource for parents on early language, stimulating early language development. That would be my dream. That would be wonderful,” she said.
One of the pillars behind Calvert’s literary success is Dr. Sharon Lockwood, who is also a speech-language pathologist.
Calvert fondly remembered her early mentor.
“She was my boss at Children’s Hospital. She was the head of the hearing and speech clinic there. She was everything to me and everything I know I give her credit for,” Calvert said.
Lockwood played a key role not just as the illustrator but as an editor for the first book, of which she helped Calvert design the flow.
David Calvert, Mary’s son, inspired her to write a children’s book drawing from her vast expertise as a speech pathologist.
“[David] was having friends who were having children and they were looking for resources for speech and language. And there are lots of resources online and there are articles and they are, you know, just very tedious for a lot of young parents who are working and don’t have the time to read all the different things that are important, activities and opportunities to increase and enrich language,” she said.
Calvert plans to release a second “Bailey Speaks!” book sometime in the fall. The focus on the follow up will be on early words and phrases.
“Book Two emphasizes early words and phrases that a young child uses in their daily activities. Tips or ‘gold nuggets’ are provided on each page for the parent,” she said.
“At the end of the book, common words are provided by categories as a parent resource. These early words are based on evidence-based research in the field of speech pathology and linguistics.”
Calvert showed a near-final version of the book on her laptop. Just like the first book, all the words and activities showcased are evidence-backed and proven to help children with language difficulties.
Due to increasing awareness over the years, many parents are now cognizant about speech-language delays and getting their kids diagnosed and seen sooner. Calvert offers a word of advice for parents concerned their child might be facing speech or language delay and where to go from there.
“If parents are concerned that their child may have a speech and/or language [delay], it is highly recommended that they consult their child’s pediatrician. Early intervention is crucial in helping children with speech and language delays. Difficulties in speech and language communication can be diagnosed and therapy provided as early as 18 months. Best advice I have for parents, talk about your daily experiences with your child and read, read, read to your child!” she said.