Written By

Nicolette Ward


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

30 November 2021

Related Study Areas

In demand in regional and rural settings

The speech pathology profession in Australia is currently experiencing high demand, and even more so in regional and rural communities. Hailing from Mackay, recent JCU speech pathologist graduate Rhana Gelens said the decision to stay local was an easy one to make, quickly finding a position in Townsville after graduating in 2019.

My first role was located in a mobile outreach clinic, visiting both adults and children in their homes, with an age range spanning from one year old to 65 years old. Being at the start of my career, I wanted to work across all age groups so that I could develop as many skills as possible.

Doing this role, I then developed a passion for early intervention as I got to see how important and how successful therapies can be with very young children. Early intervention between two to five or six years old encompasses a critical learning timeframe where if you can build the foundations of communication, then it's very likely that these children will develop a functional means of expressing themselves and understanding others.

JCU Alumni Rhana Gelens

Early intervention the key

With a growing interest in early intervention therapies, Rhana recently took on a new position at a specialist clinic working specifically with children with autism aged two to six years old, also based in Townsville.

We work with the children intensively for five days a week, in a sort of childcare learning centre environment, for a large period throughout the day. My role as a speech pathologist is to help these children to develop a functional communication system.

Often children with autism have difficulty expressing their wants, thoughts and feelings, which is incredibly hard for families. Some of the children may even have no or minimal verbal language. But autism is diverse, so we also see children that are able to say a lot verbally, but they might have trouble communicating to people within a social context.

Helping kids to be able to say things and express their feelings and needs is just so rewarding. There are some really special moments, like when a mum cries after hearing her daughter say the word ‘mum’ for the first time and tells you how thankful she is for the work you are doing.

Communication is also the foundation of making relationships which in turn means you are then able to live a functional life. I work as part of a multidisciplinary team comprising of an occupational therapist and a behavior therapist, who further assist the children to achieve life skills.

"The work of a speech pathologist is amazing as you really get to see how what you do impacts on people's lives. I'm still learning every day how important the profession of speech pathology is."

JCU Alumni Rhana Gelens

Rhana while teaching

Speech pathology for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Rhana is of Torres Strait Islander descent, and although not growing up within a Torres Strait Islander cultural setting, she credits her JCU placement experiences to preparing her for an advocacy role for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The student placement experiences I had at Kingaroy, Cherbourg and also at JCU’s Murtupuni Centre for Rural and Remote Health in Mount Isa were, without a doubt, the highlights of my degree. They ignited my passion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health advocacy that I got to explore further after graduating when I became a member of Speech Pathology Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee.

Unfortunately, speech language difficulties are more highly represented in indigenous communities compared to non-indigenous communities. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, growing up in households with different dialogues and lingos, often means they might not always acquire language the same way that another child would. But there is also so much diversity when working within these communities that it's important to not have a one size fits all approach.

The cultural dynamics that exist within those communities and within those families can be complex and quite different to what many people are used to. So when working with families where there is a communication impairment, it's important to take into consideration what communication actually means to these families. For example, communication can also represent spiritual connection.

The town of Cherbourg at night.
The welcome sign at Cherbourg.

Impacting on people's lives

Having started her JCU studies as a school leaver, Rhana is thankful that she made the right decision for her future career.

The work of a speech pathologist is amazing as you really get to see how what you do impacts on people's lives. I'm still learning every day how important the profession of speech pathology is.

"I love what I do and feel fortunate that I picked speech pathology. The degree wasn't always easy but I got there in the end and have achieved things that I never expected I would."

JCU Alumni Rhana Gelens

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