Four-year-old Andrew Lawley knows a big screen villain when he sees one. In 101 Dalmatians, he explains, Cruella de Vil "is really nasty because she wants to turn the dogs into a fur coat". That assessment signals tremendous language development for a boy whose parents struggled to understand his limited, largely monosyllabic speech 18 months ago.
Andrew, who has been going to school full-time since the start of this term, has been hampered by the need to undergo three grommet operations for persistent glue ear.
From September 1995 to September 1996, he was one of the 180 under fives who benefit each year from weekly home visits carried out by the 17 teachers in Essex County Council's special needs support service (SNSS).
"The children referred to us by educational psychologists have a wide variety of special needs, such as Down's syndrome or cerebral palsy, and come from a wide variety of backgrounds," explains Helen Wood, the SNSS deputy team leader. "But they all have some degree of speech and language delay.
"We seek to combine early intervention with family involvement. Once parents have given their consent for home visiting, we aim to involve them as much as possible, building on the principle that parents are the primary educators of their children."
Each visit last 90 minutes, and usually includes a mixture of carefully modelled one-to-one activities, fun and play, joint planning and target setting. "We are trying to help the children start school with their speech and language at an age-appropriate level," says Mrs Wood. "The nature of each programme is determined by the child's needs. Clear targets for achievement are agreed with the family."
In Andrew's case, there was a pressing need for progress. "We were very worried about his speech," says Andrew's mother, Kathryn, who teaches child psychology. "At one stage, he only knew the word milk, which he used to refer to all drinks. I only knew what he wanted by following where he was looking in the kitchen. Unless he was saying something in a familiar context, we couldn't understand him."
The Lawleys paid for Andrew to undergo private speech therapy at their home in the village of Stapleford Abbotts, near Brentwood, and then worked in partnership with SNSS teacher Pauline Loader.
"At first, Andrew was using only single words," says Mrs Loader. "But during play sessions I found that he would spontaneously speak in sentences and use concepts that he was unable to produce in a more structured setting."
Mrs Lawley and her husband found the consistent presence of Mrs Loader "very reassuring". From being "a bit sad, a bit of a loner" at his playgroup, Andrew became a much more confident child who was, his mother says, longing to start school. "He is now enjoying school so much that it's easy to forget how far behind he was at three," she says.