Alexandra Obernberger’s cupboards are chock-full of games and toys. When the children see them, their eyes light up. “They feel like they’ve arrived at Toys ‘R’ Us,” the 26-year-old native Upper Austrian laughed. “Like they’ve just entered paradise.”
Obernberger is a speech therapist, and her toy-filled practice is a place where children know they will be understood and accepted, and with the help of the toys, guided through the world of words.
The majority of Obernberger’s patients are children – about 80% – brought by parents deeply concerned about their child’s speech impediment or delayed language development. Their reaction to the games and toys is sometimes skeptical at first.
“One of the biggest misunderstandings about what I do is that I simply play with the children for an hour,” she explained.
“It is a form of playing – but in a very targeted way.” The most important foundation of Obernberger’s work is the trust she builds with her young patients.
“Children learn how language functions through their environment,” she emphasized, “through interaction.” Direct contact is crucial in language development, and cannot be taken for granted in a contemporary child’s upbringing. Technological devices such as smartphones, tablets and TVs are “not optimal,” she says, and often lead to passivity.
Altogether, some 50,000 children in Austria are affected by some kind of speech or language impediment, according to the 2018 report of the Austrian Professional Association of Speech Therapists.
One of the most frequent questions Obernberger gets is “Why my child?” – a question that unfortunately has no simple answer. Causes can range from genetic factors, psychological or neurological issues, to hearing, vision or motor-skill-related problems. But most often it’s a combination of several.
While there has been extensive scientific research on possible causes, for Obernberger, helping the children overcome their difficulties comes first.
“The interesting thing about ‘research’ is that when there’s a lot of it, it often means they haven’t yet arrived at any solutions.”
With that, Obernberger went back to the business of finding them.