Shari Morrison-Doke, a speech-language pathologist and the owner of Speech Tree, a speech therapy center, is surrounded by her employees as she cuts the ribbon at her new location in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

When Shari Morrison-Doke’s oldest son, Cooper, was 9 months old, he could use sign language to ask for more juice and crackers.

Although using sign language is not expected from infants, Cooper’s circumstances were unusual in that his mom has expertise in that area.

A trained speech-language pathologist, Morrison-Doke works with children at her speech therapy center, Speech Tree, in Ontario.

Speech Tree has operated in Ontario for four years now, but outgrew its old office at 964 W. Idaho Ave. The center recently moved to 1106 S.W. 4th Ave., the former site of Skippers Seafood ‘N Chowder restaurant.

The building has been remodeled and is now full of toys. In the corner sits a convincing state of the art play kitchen set.

Morrison-Doke said that after attending college at Washington State University, where she earned both her graduate and undergraduate degrees in speech pathology, she moved to Idaho in 2003.

She started off on her own as a speech pathologist, visiting patients, both adults and children, in their homes. But eventually she got too busy and had to find a place of her own so people could start coming to her.

In 2006, Morrison-Doke started Speech Tree, and today she owns three centers, two in Idaho, and one in Ontario. She currently has 10 employees but is looking to expand. 

[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG - SUBSCRIBE ]

Morrison-Doke said that what attracted her to speech pathology was the opportunity to help others, and while she initially began with both adults and children, she chose to specialize with children.

“I initially thought I was going to go more the adult route and work with stroke patients and stuff like that,” Morrison-Doke said. “And in my first job I did some of that and I did pediatrics.”

Morrison-Doke said that after finishing her education, her clients would range from a 2-year-old with Down syndrome, a 75-year-old who had a stroke, an 8-year-old having trouble pronouncing Rs, and then a baby with cerebral palsy having issues with feeding. All issues related to speech pathology.

“I was covering the whole big gamut of what we do in speech pathology and I felt like I knew a little bit about a lot of things but I wasn’t really great at any one thing,” Morrison-Doke said. “I decided I either needed to choose to specialize more in children or adults.”

Today, she works with children, helping them correct or improve their speech.

The objective, Morrison-Doke said, is to get kids to want to communicate, when either they don’t want to, as is the case with kids with autism or with kids who want to communicate but can’t.

It is her job to figure out what is the issue and then to help them communicate. Down syndrome and autism are two conditions she encounters frequently. 

Morrison-Doke uses what she called “play-based therapy.”

“We do a lot of play and try and get them to talk while we are playing, but it has to be play based,” Morrison-Doke said.

“We’ll see kids who are delayed, and we don’t know why,” she said. “Maybe they have hearing issues. It could be that they have a neurological issue like cerebral palsy that really limits the ability to move their muscles in the body. And that is what speech is, it is small muscle movement, and how your tongue moves from place to place, and your lips and your cheeks and your jaw and everything has to be positioned exactly right for speech, and it has to be fast and it has to be rapid,” Morrison-Doke said.

Morrison-Doke explained that some children experience a breakdown in certain motor pathways in the brain that make speech automatic.

This breakdown is similar in adults who experience strokes, Morrison-Doke said.

“We kind of have to almost like program it back in.”

Morrison-Doke said that this is called apraxia.

“It can happen because they’ve had damage to your brain like an adult that had a stroke, or it happens because those motor patterns never established as a baby,” Morrison-Doke said. 

She added that babbling as a child is essential for building motor pathways as a baby.

“The kids that don’t babble then end up being kids that really struggle to talk down the road.”

Morrison-Doke said that Speech Tree accepts Medicaid from both Oregon and Idaho, and that her patients are referred by physicians, parents, or speech pathologists working for Malheur County.

She said that doctors are good at picking up developmental issues in speech.

“The doctors know the developmental norms,” she said.

“When the kids come in for their well child checks, the doctors will see that they are behind in their speech and language and they will refer to us,” Morrison-Doke said. “But then, what we do, is we have a variety of tests that we give to kids, these tests are all standardized and they take large samples of kids to find out where they should be in their communication skills.”

Morrison-Doke said that if any parents have concerns about their child’s speech development, it is easy for the folks at Speech Tree to provide a quick, free screening to determine if the child needs therapy.

“Bring them in to play Candyland with me for 15 minutes and I can tell you if we need to test or not,” Morrison-Doke said.

Morrison-Doke said that she is grateful that the community is full of people looking out for kids and making sure the right services are available.

“We know that kids that are behind in their communication and their speech skills, when they go into school it is more challenging. They are more at risk for reading delays, they are more at risk for learning delays, so really, if we can get them caught up or closer to being caught up before they turn school age, then maybe we can avert and avoid problems that are going to be lifelong problems like academic struggles,” Morrison-Doke said.  

“We just want people in the community to know that we are here and we want to be able to help as many kids that we can to be the most successful communicators that they can be,” she said.

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: news@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

For the latest news, follow the Enterprise on Facebook and Twitter.

SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING -- For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.