What Is Speech-Language Therapy?

Speech-language therapy is the treatment for most kids with speech and/or language disorders.

What Are Speech Disorders?

A speech disorder refers to a problem with making sounds. Speech disorders include:

  • Articulation disorders: These are problems with making sounds in syllables, or saying words incorrectly to the point that listeners can't understand what's being said.
  • Fluency disorders: These include problems such as stuttering, in which the flow of speech is interrupted by unusual stops, partial-word repetitions ("b-b-boy"), or prolonging sounds and syllables (sssssnake).
  • Resonance or voice disorders: These are problems with the pitch, volume, or quality of the voice that distract listeners from what's being said. These types of disorders may also cause pain or discomfort for a child when speaking.

What Are Language Disorders?

A language disorder refers to a problem understanding or putting words together to communicate ideas. Language disorders can be either receptive or expressive:

  • Receptive disorders are problems with understanding or processing language.
  • Expressive disorders are problems with putting words together, having a limited vocabulary, or being unable to use language in a socially appropriate way.
  • Cognitive-communication disorders are problems with communication skills that involve memory, attention, perception, organization, regulation, and problem solving.

What Are Feeding Disorders?

Dysphagia/oral feeding disorders are disorders in the way someone eats or drinks. They include problems with chewing and swallowing, coughing, gagging, and refusing foods.

Who Gives Speech-Language Therapy?

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs), often called speech therapists, are educated in the study of human communication, its development, and its disorders. SLPs assess speech, language, cognitive-communication, and oral/feeding/swallowing skills. This lets them identify a problem and the best way to treat it.

SLPs have:

  • at least a master's degree
  • state certification/licensure in the field
  • a certificate of clinical competency from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

An ASHA-certified SLP has passed a national exam and completed an ASHA-accredited supervised clinical fellowship.

Sometimes, speech assistants help give speech-language services. They usually have a 2-year associate's or 4-year bachelor's degree, and are supervised by an SLP.

What Do SLPs Do?

In speech-language therapy, an SLP works with a child one-on-one, in a small group, or in a classroom to overcome problems.

Therapists use a variety of strategies, including:

  • Language intervention activities: The SLP will interact with a child by playing and talking, using pictures, books, objects, or ongoing events to stimulate language development. The therapist may model correct vocabulary and grammar, and use repetition exercises to build language skills.
  • Articulation therapy: Articulation, or sound production, exercises involve having the therapist model correct sounds and syllables in words and sentences for a child, often during play activities. The level of play is age-appropriate and related to the child's specific needs. The SLP will show the child how to make certain sounds, such as the "r" sound, and may show how to move the tongue to make specific sounds.
  • Oral-motor/feeding and swallowing therapy: The SLP may use a variety of oral exercises — including facial massage and various tongue, lip, and jaw exercises — to strengthen the muscles of the mouth for eating, drinking, and swallowing. The SLP may also introduce different food textures and temperatures to increase a child's oral awareness during eating and swallowing.

Why Do Some Kids Need Speech-Language Therapy?

Kids might need speech-language therapy for many reasons, including:

  • hearing impairments
  • cognitive (intellectual, thinking) or other developmental delays
  • weak oral muscles
  • chronic hoarseness
  • cleft lip or cleft palate
  • autism
  • motor planning problems
  • articulation problems
  • fluency disorders
  • respiratory problems (breathing disorders)
  • feeding and swallowing disorders
  • traumatic brain injury

Therapy should begin as soon as possible. Children who start therapy early (before they're 5 years old) tend to have better results than those who begin later.

This doesn't mean that older kids won't do well in therapy. Their progress might be slower, though, because they have learned patterns that need to be changed.

Who Do I Find a Speech-Language Therapist?

To find a specialist, ask your child's doctor or teacher for a referral, check local directories online, or search on ASHA's website. State associations for speech-language pathology and audiology also keep listings of licensed and certified therapists.

Your child's SLP should be licensed in your state and have experience working with kids and your child's specific disorder.

How Can Parents Help?

Parents are key to the success of a child's progress in speech or language therapy. Kids who finish the program quickest and with the longest-lasting results are those whose parents were involved.

Ask the therapist what you can do. For instance, you can help your child do the at-home activities that the SLP suggests. This ensures the continued progress and carry-over of new skills.

Overcoming a speech or language disorder can take time and effort. So it's important that all family members be patient and understanding with the child.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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