When James Martin walks out onto the stage next month as the lead role in his high school musical Honk!, few audience members will even be aware of the parallels between the character he plays and the actor himself.
James, a Year 11 student at Ursula Frayne Catholic College, takes on the role of Ugly, an ordinary-looking young cygnet who ultimately grows into a handsome swan in a musical adaptation of the Ugly Duckling, by George Stiles. In speech terms only, James, who battled with speech dyspraxia as a child, has followed a path similar to that ‘ugly duckling’. And, with the help of Telethon Speech & Hearing (TSH) and others, he too has transformed into a handsome swan – one that is confident enough to not only act but sing in front of a packed auditorium.
A little over a decade ago, James’ father Brian could not have imagined his son performing in front of an audience. In fact, he was going from pillar to post in an attempt just to find a diagnosis for his son’s speech challenges.
“We first noticed something was wrong when James was about two-and-a-half years old,” explains Brian. “He had a bad cold and his speech development suddenly slowed down, developing what we later realised was classic symptoms of speech dyspraxia.
“He was having difficulty with speech intonation, was unable to pronounce words properly, had a limited vocabulary compared to his friends, and repeated conversations and sentences.”
Eager to find the cause, Brian’s first port of call was his GP, who recommended James have his adenoids removed. He then took James to be assessed by a speech therapist and, later, an occupational therapist. All of them came up with differing diagnoses.
Fortunately, Brain was referred to Perth paediatrician Dr John Wray, who immediately determined that James was battling with speech dyspraxia.
“He recommended trying to get James a place in the Talkabout Program or at the Language Development Centre,” says Brian. “John’s recommendation was that, in James’ case, it would be a better option to try to keep him in his own school and attend TSH.”
The Talkabout program sees children attend TSH for one or two days a week and return to their mainstream school for the remaining days.
“I was like a dog with a bone,” says Brian. “I put James on the waiting list and then the poor enrolments officer became my BFF [best friend forever], as I was onto the phone to her every week to see if a spot had come up. She was so kind and patient with me and eventually we got James in.”
Through Talkabout’s multi-disciplinary approach, where he had access to speech therapists, occupational therapists, audiologists and psychologists, James’s speech improved rapidly.
“When James was younger, friends and family used to struggle to understand what he was saying and follow his conversation,” explains Brian. “He was, and still is, a chilled-out lad and it never affected him, but his development with the Talkbout Program was amazing.
“Every few weeks we would notice his speech development had improved. Without that intervention, he wouldn’t be the assured, confident young man he’s growing into now. TSH’s focus on literacy really helped him in school, both in primary and high school English, and he’s now studying for ATAR English, with an ambition to study film production in Uni.
“Also, the focus on motor skills really helped his gross motors skills, and he now loves sports and is one of his school’s top cross-country runners and represents the school in a lot of other inter-school sporting competitions. One of James’ core values is inclusiveness for everybody, and I think this is a value he developed in TSH. He was elected Sport Prefect last year, and this value of inclusiveness was the core of his election manifesto.”
Although James’ most vivid memory of TSH is, like most other alumni, the Flying Fox slide in the school’s occupational therapy gym, he is aware of how much of an impact the Talkabout program has had on his life.
“At the time I wasn’t able to recognise how much Talbabout was helping me,” he says. “But it really helped boost my confidence and my speech a lot. When look back at videos of myself as a kid, I have no idea what I’m saying.
“After Telethon I was able to fit in with a lot of other kids at my school and continued my school life as if I’d never had verbal dyspraxia. And, having once struggled with speech, I now really enjoy acting and public speaking.”
James’ lead role means that not only will he be speaking in front of a large audience, but singing too. Thankfully, he’s not too worried about either.
“I have always enjoyed acting,” he says, “but I never thought I was able to sing. When I auditioned for my role, I just wanted to try my best at singing, and I was able to land the lead role. During rehearsals I have learned to sing in tune, and I feel I have come a long way from where I have started.
“It has been great fun. Everyone is a blast to work with and I’m sure the school is really going to enjoy it.”
The experience has reinforced James’ desire to pursue a career in the film industry, preferably as a film director.
“I understand that it is a complex profession that requires lots of experience, so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,” he says. “Hopefully I will be able to do a degree in film production, which would help with many roles in the film industry, such as film director, film editor, scriptwriter and film critic, as well as plenty more roles.”
When Brian settles into his front row seat to watch his son’s debut stage performance, he may well take a moment to reflect on how different things could have been had James not received the treatment he needed. Mostly, he will be grateful for the support that allowed his ‘ugly duckling’ to transform into a majestic swan.
He also had some helpful advice for any families going through similar struggles to what his did.
“We’re incredibly lucky that the Western Australia has an amazing array of resources and facilities to help with speech delays such as this,” says Brian. “Make sure you raise a happy and confident kid, and the rest will all fall into place.”
For James Martin, it has been quite the journey to starring in his high school’s musical. No doubt this is just the beginning of the story.
If you suspect that your child might have a speech and/or language delay, we recommend booking a speech assessment here.
To find out more about Telethon Speech & Hearing’s Talkabout program, click here.