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Speech and Language Disorders in Children

Photo: Developments in speech therapy for children
Communication is a vital skill which plays an essential role in our everyday lives; it helps us to build relationships, socialise, learn, and work.

Most children will be developing communication skills from the moment they are born, in school, and even as they grow and reach adulthood. Babies, for instance, will naturally learn to understand words and sentences before they can even say them, the next step will be to learn to say the words, and connect them to make logical sentences.

What is the difference between speech and language?

It is important to break down the term ‘communication’ and understand the differences between speech and language before we can understand any disorders.

Speech can be defined in layman terms as ‘talking’; it is a way in which we can express language, however to do so a precise coordination of tongue, lip, jaw and vocal tract muscles is required. As a result of these coordinated movements, we are able to produce recognisable sounds which express language.
Language, on the other hand, is a set of shared rules amongst people which allows us to express our ideas and thoughts. Language is not limited to speech however; it can be expressed in writing, body language, and even via signs.

Milestones in speech and language development

Speech and language skills are usually learned in the first three years of life as the human brain develops. This time is essential for children, as their world is full of exciting sounds and sights, and their brains are constantly exposed to languages and communications from other people around them.

Research shows that there are critical periods which are essential for the development of speech skills in young children as their minds absorb languages. However, if for some reason in these critical periods the child is not exposed to language or vital forms of communication, then learning such skills becomes significantly much harder.

One of the earliest communication milestones for a young baby is when they learn that their basic needs such as food and emotional and physical comfort will be met in response to their cry. The newborn will also learn to recognise the voices of their parents or guardians, and as early as six months old a baby will become familiar with the basic sounds of their mother-tongue.

As with every skill, children all learn at different paces. However, it has been noted that there is a natural progression of language development. Doctors and speech therapists will tend to use a checklist of language development milestones for children from birth up to the age of five years.

Delays in these milestones can be a result of hearing loss or an undiagnosed speech or language disorder.

What to do if a child’s speech or language appears to be delayed

If someone is concerned that a child’s speech, or language development seems to be delayed, then they should speak to the child’s health advisor or doctor. These medical professionals will be able to refer the child forward to a speech-language pathologist – someone who is professionally trained to diagnose and treat people who have speech or language disorders.

An assessment session with a speech and language pathologist will typically last between half an hour to one hour. Usually the pathologist will talk with the parent, guardian, or whoever has referred the child in order to address concerns about the child’s development, and also to understand the child’s early history.

Next the speech-language pathologist will assess the child’s communication skills and overall development in comparison to their age, with the use of special spoken tests. If the child is still quite young, these assessments can be done through playing with the child or simply watching him or her play.

Although an informal method of assessment, the pathologist will be looking at how well the child is talking, which sounds he or she is using, and if they can understand language or instructions.

If the child is old enough, then the speech-language pathologist may work with him or her through some published and standardised assessments. These formal assessments will allow the pathologist to score the child and compare them to children of a similar age to see if there are any variations in their development.

Hearing problems and speech development

As hearing problems can affect language development, a hearing examination may also be carried out. If any abnormalities stand out, the pathologist may suggest some exercises that can be done at home with the child to stimulate and encourage development. Sometimes individual or group therapies are offered, or if there is an underlying cause such as a hearing problem or a psychological issue then the child may be further referred to an audiologist or developmental psychologist.

Current research in speech and language disorders

Currently research institutes such as the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (the NIDCD) are exploring

  • numerous paths to understand speech and language disorders,
  • how such disorders develop,
  • ways in which the diagnostic process can be sped up, and
  • methods to improve treatments and make them more effective.

Interestingly, research institutes are also looking into the possibility of a link between genetics and specific speech impairments and have recently found one genetic variant which delays a child’s use of words in their school years. More research is being carried out to explore the role genetics play in children who have dyslexia, autism, and other speech or sound disorders.

Work is continually being carried out in the field of speech therapy as we learn about the root cause of different disorders, new diagnosis methods, and ways to overcome such disorders.

With appropriate encouragement and stimulation it is important to remember that we can help children with difficulties in overcoming communication barriers so that they too can reach their full potential. 

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