What is considered a speech/ language disorder?

5 May, 2021

Speech and language are areas of difficulty in communication delays and disorders. Speech refers to how we use our body to communicate verbally (e.g. placement of our lips, teeth, tongue etc.) and language refers to our ability to express and understand words, phrases, sentences and conversation through knowing the content, form (e.g. past tense) and use (e.g. sarcasm) of language. A significant percentage of Australian school children (13%) experience some form of speech or language disorder.

Types of Speech and Language Disorders

Difficulties with speech and language can fall under several areas of speech pathology practice. It is important for speech pathologists to complete necessary assessments in order to differentiate these difficulties. Some of these areas are listed below with a description of how these could present.

Articulation

The person has trouble producing some sounds. They may have difficulties making themselves understood by others due to their errors in pronunciation.

Fluency

The person’s speech flow contains stoppages, repetitions, or elongated words or syllables. Stuttering and cluttering are fluency disorders.

Resonance

A resonance or voice disorder can affect the person’s ability to regulate their volume or pitch. Their speech can be distracting to listeners, and in extreme cases, it may cause them pain.

Receptive

Receptive language disorders refer to inability or difficulty understanding language. These disorders include understanding written and spoken language.

Expressive

A person with an expressive language disorder may have a limited vocabulary, difficulty writing, difficulty expressing information and using grammar, or difficulty using language in a socially acceptable manner.

Assessing Speech and Language Disorders

Speech-language pathologists assess a person using the following:

  • Identifying the presence and history of speech and language difficulties
  • Identifying background medical/developmental history impacting speech and language use
  • Using formal and informal/observational assessments to analyse speech and language difficulties
  • Assessing the functional impact of speech and language difficulties on an individual in various environments, activities and participation in community roles
  • Trialling speech and language therapy to assess the implication of a therapy program

The initial assessment session will include an interview to gather background information on the person with speech/language difficulties. Initial assessment sessions may also include formal standardised tests and informal (e.g. observational) assessment. Standardised tests allow the speech pathologist to compare the person’s speech and language skills to their peers’ performance and to establish a baseline for performance. Informal assessment may include observation and questionnaires, to gather information about how speech and language is used in a natural setting (e.g. conversation) and to gather information from communication partners about speech/language performance.

The assessment of speech and language difficulties involves gathering information from general practitioners, parents and/or caregivers, teachers, and other medical/health professionals. Information gathered helps speech pathologists understand the nature, extent, and impacts of the disorder on the person’s life. These inputs influence the identification of speech and language difficulties, inform other professionals to identify underlying diagnoses, and provide strategies to other professionals on how to communicate effectively with the person using strategies. Communication strategies take into consideration the person’s communication environments (e.g. quiet home vs a loud classroom).

During an assessment, the speech pathologist will also try to determine the cause of the speech and language difficulty. The cause impacts the decision making for ideal treatment options, communication strategies, prognosis (expected impact) and therapy regime. Speech and language difficulties impact everyone differently, assessment is person centred as everybody presents uniquely with different needs (e.g. the impact of language difficulties on a mechanic vs a public speaker – everyone has different priorities in therapy).

Causes of Speech and Language Disorders

A few of the common causes of speech and language disorders are:

  • Stroke or brain injuries
  • Muscle weakness or even trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Hearing loss
  • Degenerative diseases like Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s disease
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Throat cancer
  • Psychological factors may include shyness or anxiety e.g. selective mutism

The conditions above cannot be diagnosed by a speech pathologist. It is important to seek intervention and support from a medical professional like a General Practitioner (GP). A speech pathologist can support a person with their speech and language difficulties that occur as a result of these conditions.

Treating Speech and Language Disorders

The treatment approach typically depends on the diagnosis, severity, and causes of the speech or language disorder. The age of the person will also determine what type of treatment they will receive. The speech pathologist may use fun activities and games to help develop a child’s areas of difficulty. In contrast, an adult may respond better to repetitive practice to treat a speech or language disorder. These delivery methods are tailored to individuals by the speech pathologist.

Other interventions, in the case of permanent or temporary loss of speech and language skills, may include the use of sign language or electronic devices to assist communication.

Conclusion

Speech and language difficulties cover a broad spectrum of communication problems. People may require personalised and individualised assessment and intervention to identify and address these difficulties. Typically, speech pathologists will work with other medical professionals to highlight the diagnosis, expected outcome, and management of speech and language disorders. The person may present with fairly normal speech and language ability, however, speech and language can be impacted in many different “invisible” ways (e.g. difficulties with social communication). A properly diagnosed and treated communication disorder can improve the person’s life. It is recommended that a person with communication difficulties sees a speech pathologist to improve their communication performance, participation in their community, attendance of activities, and promote communication in a range of settings.

GenPhysio provide mobile speech therapy services in Queensland and Far North NSW. To find out more about our at-home services, give us a call on 1300 122 884.

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