What is speech therapy?

girl-blowing-bubbles1Speech and language therapy (commonly referred to simply as “speech therapy”) is a special kind of therapy to help your child communicate.  If your child has difficulty expressing his needs, he may become very frustrated and display behaviors such as crying, tantrums, withdrawing, etc. If it is due to a delay or disability, the sooner your child begins therapy, the sooner he will be able to understand language, express his needs and be understood. Once he is no longer frustrated, the happier he and the whole family will be!

Are speech and language problems all the same?

No. There are many different aspects to speech and language. For example, a child may have difficulty speaking due to a structural problem in his mouth or for another reason. Other times a child can understand language but has a hard time getting words out and expressing himself. Yet other times a child does not understand the spoken word (which may be due to a hearing problem, but it could also have no known cause).   Some children develop language more slowly than their peers (a delay), while other children have more choppy development or have more serious problems (a disorder). Sometimes a speech or language problem is one part of a larger diagnosis. It is different for every child.

Here are some common types of speech and language problems:
    • expressive language – how a child speaks or expresses himself
    • receptive language – whether a child can process and understand what is said to him
    • mixed expressive/receptive language- a combination of both problems
    • social language or pragmatics  – using language correctly in a social setting
    • dysphagia – a swallowing disorder
    • dyslexia and language based learning disabilities  – when a child has trouble understanding the written word (reading), learning new vocabulary, expressing ideas clearly, understanding directions, spelling, numbers or telling time.

You can read more about the different kinds of speech and language problems as well as important language milestones here.

How do you get speech and language services for your child?

The first step is to talk to your child’s health care provider about your child’s speech or language milestones.  You can request to have your child evaluated for free through programs provided by your state (for babies and toddlers) or by your school district (for children age 3 and older). This is provided to you under the IDEA, (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This is the federal law that ensures that children with developmental delays or disabilities receive the help that they need.  Speech and language therapy falls under the umbrella of Related Services.  Keep in mind that parents can request an evaluation without a referral from a doctor or school. See my prior posts for info on how to have your baby and toddler or child age 3 and up evaluated for free. 

According to the IDEA, a “Speech or language impairment means a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”  The key words are articulation, fluency, voice and language. For a closer look at each one, please see NICHCY’s discussion

Once your child has been evaluated and the professionals have met with you to discuss the results of the testing, they may recommend that your child receive services provided by a Speech and Language Pathologist (a professional who provides therapy for communication problems). Therapy may include services for addressing communication problems as well as counseling and guidance for you and your child’s teachers. Although the primary aim is to get your child to learn to speak clearly and understand language, it is sometimes necessary for a child to learn sign language or rely on picture books in order to be able to communicate. Every child is different.

When and how is speech therapy begun?

Speech therapy often begins in infancy for a baby with oral structural problems, and in toddlerhood or preschool for children with delayed speech or other language issues. However, it can begin at any age. If your child is not identified as having a speech and language problem until he is in elementary, middle or even high school, do not despair. The positive effects of therapy may still be very helpful.

If it is decided that your child will receive speech and language therapy, his specific needs and goals will be outlined in his IFSP – Individualized Family Service Plan (for babies and toddlers up to age 3) or IEP – an Individualized Education Program (for kids ages 3 and up). This document will provide details of the services he will receive, including how often, where and with whom. Remember, parents are members of the team that write up the goals for the IFSP or IEP. 

Will your child like the therapy?

Most children thoroughly enjoy speech and language therapy – I know my daughter did. SLPs incorporate games and creative ways of learning into the sessions which make it fun and enjoyable for your child. For example, blowing bubbles helps to develop oral facial muscles and also breath control, which are necessary in learning to speak.

The bottom line

If your child is referred for speech and language therapy, be glad that he is going to have the specialized attention he needs to help make communication easier for him and you. It is important to address all communication needs as soon as you learn of them because your child will benefit from the therapy for the rest of his life. 

On a personal note, my daughter started speech and language therapy at age 3 and continued through early high school. It helped so much! She became a thespian in high school and continues to act in plays with a local community theater group. In college, her highest grade (A+) was in a Public Speaking course!  Without receiving speech therapy, I doubt she would have overcome her obstacles to the point where she could speak in front of large groups or act on a stage in front of a live audience. Never say never!

Have questions?  Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.com.

Note: This post is part of the weekly series Delays and disabilities – how to get help for your child. It was started on January 16, 2013 and appears every Wednesday . Feel free to go back to look at prior posts as the series builds on itself. As always, we welcome your comments and input.

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