Upon meeting Max Briffa for the first time, it is difficult to imagine that this confident, talkative young man started life with a serious speech and language delay. He’s friendly, engaging, and has that twinkle in his eyes that any ordinary 19-year-old just setting out on his summer holidays should have.
Yet Max’s story is anything but ordinary. This young man, who is studying to become a teacher, has had to endure plenty of challenges in his life and, but for some timely interventions, it could easily have turned out very differently.
“Until the age of four I was mute,” he explains. “I was a very social kid, but also socially awkward. If I did try to speak, I had this terrible stutter, so I withdrew.”
Fortunately for Max, he was enrolled Telethon Speech & Hearing’s Talkabout program, which offers early intervention therapy, specialised education and social programs for children aged 18 months to five years who have a speech and language delay or difficulty.
His mum, Vicki, herself now an education assistant at Telethon Speech & Hearing, recalls the environment that Max enjoyed when he started attending the Talkabout classes in 2006.
“Max would often ‘hide’ in plain sight by nodding and being compliant,” she explained. “This allowed him to go under the radar.
“At TSH, everyone has a voice and is heard. The proactive and positive learning environment encouraged Max to take risks. TSH gave Max a safe place to speak and, more importantly, be heard. Knowing my child was not nervous to answer a question or be dismissed quickly because he couldn’t find the words was comforting as a parent.”
Talkabout’s current Deputy Principal Di McLean was Max’s teacher in T4 and remembers the shy youngster fondly.
“Max was delightful to teach,” she says. “He was a very friendly and social student but, due to his language difficulties, he initially tended to choose play that did not require much language to participate, such as riding bikes around the bike path or building and construction play. This is quite common for children with an expressive language delay.
“In the Talkabout program, Max was given the social scripts, vocabulary and support to begin to use social language to share his play ideas with others and to build upon his play. During his year in Talkabout 4, his confidence began to grow as his language developed and Max started to tell news in front of the class with visual supports to scaffold his language. Eventually, sharing and telling news was something Max loved to do.”
The Talkabout program sees integrates specialised education at TSH with mainstream schooling, and Max attended Christ Church Grammar School. By the time he reached Year 6, Max’ grades and his confidence, particularly in public speaking, had improved dramatically. He was a finalist in the Speaker’s Challenge, was elected House Captain and spoke in front of 1,000 people at the end-of-year assembly.
All of this seemed impossible a few years prior.
“The amount of support I had at Telethon Speech & Hearing was incredible,” Max smiled. “In the learning areas, everything was hands on. It wasn’t old-fashioned teaching, but one -on-one, helping me directly.
“After coming to TSH I felt more comfortable socially – more positive and more confident. I started talking a lot more with my teachers and my friends. My social awkwardness disappeared, and I was just a normal, happy kid.
After graduating high school, Max studied physical education teaching at the University of Notre Dame, but his career path took a right turn when he completed a two-week, classroom-based practical, teaching Year 5s and Year 6s.
“It was a big eye opener for me, because every day was different and enjoyable, and I loved seeing the kids with these big smiles on their faces,” he said. “I ended up switching to primary school teaching and I’ve just finished my first year. I’m hoping to specialise in English.
“It’s funny, because I’ve gone from struggling with English to now specialising in it.”
Max understands what it feels like to be different from his peers and admits that it took him a long time to accept and embrace it. To this day, he still has moments where he feels a touch self-conscious.
“It was only when I was about eight or nine years old that I understood that I was my own person. I was different to my mates, and I needed to focus on myself and becoming the best person I could be,” he explains.
“If I had a message for a younger me, or for kids who are struggling with speech and language, it would be to relay a quote that my grandfather gave me: ‘Be comfortable being uncomfortable,’. Take it one step at a time every day, but try your hardest and try to get out of your comfort zone every now and again, because that’s how you improve as a person.
“When I started doing that, when I started talking to people at four years of age, that’s when my life started improving drastically. Telethon Speech & Hearing gave me that self-confidence and without them, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
Max is eager to pay it forward. He recently embarked on Services Action trips to Nullagine, an Aboriginal community in Western Australia’s North West and to Cambodia. At both, he taught at local schools, assisting them with their language.
“It was the best experience of my life,” Max explains. “Before I went on those trips, I took some time to reflect on my experiences at TSH and I thought back about what the teachers had done for me. I grabbed all those memories and put them back into Nullagine and Cambodia and it was so cool to see the smiles on the faces of all those children. That’s when I knew my decision to become a teacher was the right one.”
Click here to find out more about Telethon Speech & Hearing’s Talkabout program.