What are speech disorders?

A lisp or mild stuttering in children can be endearing, but they can also indicate an underlying speech disorder that may need attention. Up to nine percent of children in the U.S. will have some type of speech or sound disorder. Most of these children can avoid longer-term speech and language problems with early intervention.

What is a speech disorder?

There are four types of speech disorders:

  1. Speech articulation. This occurs when children omit or distort sounds, or substitute one sound for another.
  2. Voice. Children with abnormal vocal skills, like a change in pitch, hoarseness or loudness, may have an ongoing disorder.
  3. Language. This disorder takes the form of children not being able to understand words spoken to them or not being able to find words to communicate how they are feeling. They may have trouble grasping grammar concepts as well.
  4. Fluency. Stuttering is a common form of abnormal speech production. It is seen most often in children ages 2 to 5. If it lasts longer than a few months, it needs attention. Fluency also includes collapsing words or syllables, such as “I want a cookie” becoming “Iwancook.”

How are speech disorders diagnosed?

Parents or caregivers who are concerned that their child shows sign of any of the above disorders should reach out to their pediatrician. The first step is most likely a hearing test to make sure the child doesn’t have hearing loss. Hearing loss can affect 25 percent of children in some form, and six percent of those children will be diagnosed with a speech disorder.

Your child may need to be seen by a speech language pathologist (SLP). This person has received a master’s degree in speech language pathology and often has extra certifications or licensing.

What can you expect from treatment?

Mild speech disorders will often go away with time. For issues that linger or for more pronounced problems, treatment by an SLP may be needed:

  • Children under age 4 are often treated through play-based therapy such as games, art and music.
  • Exercising facial and throat muscles can help improve oral motor skills.
  • Learning to control breath can help children change the sounds they make.
  • Practicing helps children gain confidence in correctly understanding and delivering sounds and words.

Early intervention is key

If you are concerned that your child may have a speech or language disorder, the “wait and see” approach isn’t best. Speech disorders can affect not only how children speak, but how they learn and interact with the world. Acting early can reduce developmental or learning delays so your child will have more confidence to fully participate in the classroom and in life.

If you are concerned your child has a speech disorder or would like an evaluation, contact your UCLA pediatrician or the Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics program.


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