What Causes Speech Disorders in Children?

blogEntryThumbnailThe following is a guest post from Erica L. Fener, Ph.D. at Progressus Therapy.

All children go through periods where their speech is not perfect. That's true of any skill as it's acquired and then perfected. However, concern about a true speech disorder in your child is warranted. What causes childhood speech disorders and how can they be remedied?

Environmental reasons:
  • Lack of proper speech models
If children are around people who do not model appropriate speech, they won't learn how to speak properly. For example, children whose parents use "baby talk" for too long often don’t know how to speak properly.

Remedy: As a child grows, the speech patterns he or she hears should mature also so that the child learns to mimic and then fully understand language and appropriate pronunciation.
  • Too little time spent in conversation with older children and adults
From two to five years old, most children chatter nonstop if given the chance. This is actually an important part of their speech development. If they are not allowed to speak freely or if language is discouraged in some way, speech disorders may result. 

Remedy: While good socialization skills necessitate children being quiet at times, parents should allow children to engage in conversation as much as possible, for full speech development. These conversations also provide great opportunities for adults to appropriately model proper speech.

Physical or developmental reasons
  • Structural abnormalities
If a child cannot hear properly or has structural abnormalities in the mouth or throat that affect speech, such as cleft palate, speech does not develop normally.

Remedy: Surgery and/or use of assistive devices can restore hearing and speech capabilities, so that speech can develop normally. For example, young children often have frequent ear infections and buildup of fluid in the ears, making it difficult or impossible to hear others’ language so that it can be imitated correctly. Surgically implanting ear tubes can resolve fluid buildup, so that hearing is possible. Similarly, correcting a cleft palate makes normal speech development possible.
  • Developmental language and speech disorders
Learning disabilities, such as developmental speech and language disorder, may cause children to have difficulty with or be incapable of producing speech, communicating through spoken language, or understanding what other people are saying. Unfortunately, such developmental disorders often coincide with other learning disabilities such as dyslexia. It should be noted that this in no way reflects on a child's intelligence, and early intervention is key to remediation.

Remedy: As children get the assistance they need with their disabilities and acquire the tools they need to manage their disabilities, they learn to express themselves clearly, acquire new vocabulary and concepts as quickly as their peers do, and understand written and spoken direction so that learning proceeds at a normal pace.

Developmental disorders such as autism can cause speech delays to varying degrees. Children who are severely affected may speak very little, or when they do, may simply "echo" what someone else says using the same tone, inflection, etc., with no real understanding of what's being said. Special, intense language therapy is required.

Remedy: Early intervention is key to minimizing developmental speech delays.
  • Neurological disorders
Children with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy may have difficulty with speech because of brain damage that occurred during birth. This speech difficulty is not structural in nature and usually does not affect receptive language, only communicative language.

Remedy: Similar to an adult who has had a stroke, these children can learn to speak with varying degrees of success, or can use assistive devices that create speech for them, at their direction, much like the voice device famed physicist Stephen Hawking uses to communicate.

About the author:
Erica L. Fener, Ph.D., is Vice President, Business Development Strategy and Analysis at Progressus Therapy, a leader in connecting their candidates with school-based
SLP jobs and early intervention service jobs.
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