Speech-Language Pathologist. Speech Pathologist. Speech Teacher. Known by many names, people refer to these specialists most often as speech therapists. They work with children with a variety of delays and disorders spanning from mild articulation delays to more complex disorders such as autism, Down syndrome, hearing impairment, motor speech disorders, and other developmental delays.
SLP’s, as they are called for short, are the specialists that help your child with speech, talking and communication. However you may be surprised at how broad this field of speech-language pathology really is and just how many skill areas SLPs are trained to build and expand in young children.
An SLP can help your child with…
1. Articulation Skills/Speech Intelligibility
Articulation is the physical ability to move the tongue, lips, jaw and palate (known as the articulators) to produce individual speech sounds which we call phonemes. For example, to articulate the /b/ sound, we need to inhale, then while exhaling we need to turn our voice on, bring our slightly tensed lips together to stop and build up the airflow, and then release the airflow by parting our lips.
Intelligibility, refers to how well people can understand your child’s speech. If a child’s articulation skills are compromised for any reason, his intelligibility will be decreased in compared to other children his age. SLP’s can work with your child to teach them how to produce the specific speech sounds or sound patterns that he is having difficulty with, and thus increasing his overall speech intelligibility.You can read more about articulation development and delays here.
2. Expressive Language Skills
While speech involves the physical motor ability to talk, language is a symbolic, rule governed system used to convey a message. In English, the symbols can be words, either spoken or written. We also have gestural symbols like shrugging our shoulders to indicate “I don’t know” or waving to indicate “Bye Bye” or the raising of our eye brows to indicate that we are surprised by something.
Expressive language then, refers to what your child says. Speech-language pathologists can help your child learn new words and how to put them together to form phrases and sentences (semantics and syntax) so that your child can communicate to you and others. You can read more about the difference between speech and language here.
3. Receptive Language/Listening Skills
Receptive language, refers to your child’s ability to listen and understand language. Most often, young children have stronger receptive language skills (what they understand) than expressive language skills (what they can say). An SLP can help teach your child new vocabulary and how to use that knowledge to follow directions, answer questions, and participate in simple conversations with others.
4. Speech Fluency/Stuttering
Stuttering is a communication disorder that affects speech fluency. It is characterized by breaks in the flow of speech referred to as disfluencies and typically begins in childhood. Everyone experiences disfluencies in their speech. Some disfluencies are totally normal but having too many can actually significantly affect one’s ability to communicate.
In stuttering, we most often see the following types of primary behaviors: repetitions, prolongations, interjections, and blocks. We may also see secondary behaviors, typically in more severe cases of stuttering such as tension in the neck, shoulders, face, jaw, chest; eye blinks, nose flaring, other odd facial movements; clenched fists, stomping of feet; jerking or other unusual motor movements in arms, hands, legs, feet.
SLPs can teach your child strategies on how to control this behavior and thus increasing his speech fluency and intelligibility. You can read more about stuttering Here.
5. Voice and Resonance
Voice disorders refer to disorders that effect the vocal folds that allow us to have a voice. These can include vocal cord paralysis, nodules or polyps on the vocal folds, and other disorders that can cause hoarseness or aphonia (loss of voice). You can learn more about voice disorders on American Speech-Language Hearing Association’s website.
Resonance refers to “the quality of the voice that is determined by the balance of sound vibration in the oral, nasal, and pharyngeal cavities during speech. Abnormal resonance can occur if there is obstruction in one of the cavities, causing hyponasality or cul-de-sac resonance, or if there is velopharyngeal dysfunction (VPD), causing hypernasality and/or nasal emission.” You can read more about Resonance Disorders in this article by Ann M. Kummer in the ASHA Leader Online.
A common voice disorder in young children is hoarseness caused by vocal abuse. Vocal abuse refers to bad habits that lead to strain or damage of the vocal folds such as yelling, excessive talking, coughing, throat clearing, etc. Speech-language pathologists with experience in voice and resonance disorders can work with children to decrease these behaviors and repair the strain/damage of the folds.
6. Social/Pragmatic Language
Social/ pragmatic language refers to the way an individual uses language to communicate and involves three major communication skills: using language to communicate in different ways(like greeting others, requesting, protesting, asking questions to gain information, etc), changing language according to the people or place it is being used (i.e. we speak differently to a child than we do to an adult; we speak differently inside vs. outside), and following the rules for conversation (taking turns in conversation, staying on topic, using and understanding verbal and nonverbal cues, etc).
SLPs can work with your child to teach them these social language skills so that they can more appropriate;y participate n conversations with others. You can learn more about social/pragmatic language on the American Speech-Language Hearing Association’s (ASHA) site.
7. Cognitive-Communication Skills
Cognitive-communication disorders refer to the impairment of cognitive processes including attention, memory, abstract reasoning, awareness, and executive functions (self-monitoring, planning and problem solving). These can be developmental in nature (meaning the child is born with these deficits) or can be acquired due to a head injury, stroke, or degenerative diseases. SLPs can work with your child to help build these skills and/or teach your child compensatory methods to assist them with their deficits.
8. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
Augmentative and Alternative Communication, also known simply as AAC, refers to “…all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas.
We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write” (ASHA Website). When SLPs are working with children, our number one goal is always communication. Sometimes, a child may have such a severe delay/disorder, that traditional oral speech is not possible or is not practical. In these circumstances, an SLP may work with a child and his family to come up with an AAC system to use instead of, or along side of, speech.
It is very important to note, that these AAC methods are not always used to replace speech. In many circumstances, AAC is used as a bridge to speech. Children can use the AAC methods to communicate while still working on developing speech skills (when appropriate). You can learn more about AAC on ASHA’s site.
9. Swallowing/Feeding Issues
Speech-language pathologists, believe it or not, can be trained in pediatric swallowing and feeding issues in addition to speech and language issues. This is because, as SLPs, they have intimate knowledge of the structures and functions of the oral cavities and beyond. In fact, some SLPs have training in myofunctional disorders including tongue thrust. You can read more about swallowing and feeding disorders on ASHA’s site.
10. Educating and Empowering YOU on how to best help your child.
Hands down, the best thing an SLP can do for your child, is to educate you and empower you on how to best help your child. A speech-language pathologist may spend an hour or so a week with your child, but you spend hours and hours a week interacting with your child. You wake your child, get him ready for his day, read to him, talk to him, bathe him, and put him down to sleep at night. It is during these everyday routines that your child is learning the most and is given the most opportunities to communicate.
When you are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and confidence YOU can be the best “speech therapist” your child will ever have. So ask questions, take notes, do the homework, and work closely with your child’s SLP. Together you can make an amazing team and change your child’s life, one word at a time.