OREM — Over the years, Dayton Kinzer has learned how to hold his tongue when he speaks. He is very aware of every lift, thrust, curl and tuck that it can do as he articulates himself.
"It's hard to control all the muscles in your mouth," the 12-year-old said.
But it was even harder just three months ago.
Kinzer has been in speech therapy almost as long as he's been talking, according to his mother, but after making what she says is "miraculous progress" in 20 intense recent sessions, he is taking a break.
"It's like night and day difference," Kinzer's mother Stacy Bankhead said. "We've been through the wringer with this … in and out of therapy. He's been in programs at school and in private, watching his tongue placement in a mirror, doing all kinds of exercises over and over."
While each effort pushed him a little bit further, nothing seemed to have quite the same effect on Kinzer's speech as the custom-fit electronic palatometer, which was engineered by locally based CompleteSpeech and thought up by former Utah professor and researcher Samuel Fletcher, who now works with the department of communication disorders at BYU.
The device is much like an orthodontic retainer that contains hundreds of electronic sensors to track the motion of a user's tongue while they speak.
"It takes a lot of the guessing out of it," said speech pathologist Ann Dorais, who runs A+Speech Therapy in Orem and uses the new technology.
She said Kinzer was able to see differently colored dots on a computer screen, marking where his tongue was moving during real-time speech. When he encountered a word he struggled with, he could easily see how to correct it.
"It's hard to look in their mouth to see what is happening while they are talking," Dorais said, adding that the palatometer is a good fit for any neuro-typical person who is without any attention deficit disorders and has a speech impediment.
"It's cool to see a model of your mouth on the screen," Kinzer said. "It has really helped me out."
Nearly half of all speech therapy takes place in grade schools, but just as in Kinzer's case, not every student can benefit from the methods offered there. CompleteSpeech CEO Andy May said he estimates that just 20 sessions with the patented palatometer and visual feedback tool can accomplish as much as several years in traditional speech therapy.
"For the first time, the therapist doesn't have to wonder what the child's tongue is doing, and neither does the child," May said. "It's a very effective form of teaching."
CompleteSpeech has placed approximately 100 of the new systems in schools across the country and talks are ongoing with dozens more. While the basic technology has been around for decades, the cost of development was prohibitive for Fletcher and his original technology.
The cost of each system varies depending on the number of people who will be using it, as each individual requires his or her own mouthpiece to be made. May said one system and a set of 10 mouthpieces could run about $5,000.
But for the accelerated results it offers, Dorais said it is worth every penny.
"It really makes me a better therapist," she said, adding that seeing results is also encouraging for clients.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2.8 million children need speech therapy every year. Various speech impediments can thwart learning in all kinds of venues, but Bankhead said she noticed it was hurting her children's self esteem.
"I know their heartache," she said, adding that she went through her own speech therapy regimen as a child.
"I want my kids to talk correctly but more importantly, I want them to have the self confidence from it that it takes to get them through their lives," Bankhead said. "Self esteem and their self worth is priceless. I want them to be able to express themselves."
Although it has been a slow process, she is happy with where her two children are at now. "It just clicks for them," Bankhead said. "And to think I could have saved them so much torment and so much teasing over the years."