It’s only natural for young children to make mistakes in the early years of speaking as they experiment with new sounds and words. Some kids will talk with a lisp; others may stutter or mispronounce letters, syllables or words. As children grow older, however, their speech habits should improve to where they no longer display the same mistakes from their early learning training. Older children who continue to experience speech difficulties when they talk may be suffering from speech disorders.
Speech and language disorders can occur in children from all backgrounds, nationalities and walks of life. In the U.S. alone, over 3 million people suffer from the speech disorder of stuttering. There are many types of speech and language disorders common to both children and adults. Speech impediments can affect an individual’s ability to express himself in a clear and understandable manner, making it difficult to communicate effectively with others.
Types of Speech Disorders
There are various types of speech disorders that can hinder communications. Learning more about speech problems can help parents to identify any irregularities that may come up in their children’s lives. The earlier a child is diagnosed with a speech impediment, the sooner he can get help to correct the problem and improve his ability to communicate. The following provides a brief synopsis of some of the most common speech and language conditions in children.
Children who suffer from stuttering have difficulty speaking fluently due to involuntary repetitions of letters or sounds in a word. Even simple words such as “baby” may be complicated to say for someone who stutters, making the word come out as “ba-ba-ba-baby.” Another common trait of stutterers is to drag out the first part of a word before ending it, such as in “baaaaaaaby.” Others may simply move their lips without any sounds coming out at all for the first few attempts at talking before they can finally voice what they’re trying to say.
Stuttering often begins in childhood and in some cases, may extend through a person’s adult life. It can affect different people in different ways. Some children may stutter every time they try to talk while others may display symptoms of stuttering only when they’re nervous, fearful or overly excited. Although stuttering causes no permanent damage or harm, it can make life very difficult for a young child as it hinders his ability to communicate with family, make new friends or express himself clearly in school. Children who stutter may be ostracized at school or be unable to participate in certain activities and games. Some kids may become withdrawn or fearful of making friends, as they don’t feel others will accept them due to their speech problem.
Cluttering is disorganized speech that’s very difficult to follow. This language disorder is characterized by outbursts of words or sentence fragments in a mixed up order, unnatural pauses in speech and lack of rhythm when a person is talking. People who clutter are capable of speaking; however, they don’t always make sense due to disorganization in compiling their thoughts and sentences.
Speech Sound Disorders
A speech sound disorder is characterized by a person’s inability to distinguish sounds or sound patterns. Articulation problems have to do with sounds; phonological processes deal with sound patterns. Errors in articulation occur when kids change letters and sounds in words, add new sounds to words or omit sounds altogether. Some examples would be substituting the letter “r” in “room” with a “w”, making it “woom,” or omitting the “sc” sound in the word “school” and pronouncing it as “cool.” If a child has a lisp, he may pronounce “s” and “z” as “th”, converting the word “bus” into “buth.”
Children with a phonological process disorder often alter sound patterns in a word or fail to distinguish one of the consonants in a word that begins with a double consonant. As a result, “blend” may become “lend” and “spoon” may become “poon.” It’s not uncommon for young kids to make these kinds of mistakes when learning new words. However, if these mistakes continue as children grow, it could be a sign of a speech sound disorder. Speech disorders in children are easier to distinguish after the age of 8 or 9 years old, as by that time, they should have outgrown speech irregularities and be speaking English correctly.
Apraxia is a motor skills speech disorder caused by the brain’s inability to coordinate muscle movement in those parts of the body that produce speech, such as the lips, tongue and jaw. As a result, people are unable to properly pronounce sounds, syllables and words. Slurred speech is a common symptom of apraxia. People suffering from apraxia know what they want to say; however, they are often unable to form the words they desire, making it very difficult to converse coherently with others.
Possible Causes for Speech Problems
Speech disorders are not the norm. With the exception of stuttering, most people know very little about speech and language disorders, their symptoms and causes. Although the majority of the populace enjoys the benefits of normal speech, few, if any, are aware of how complex the process of normal speech can be. The brain must synchronize nerves and muscles in a person’s vocal cords, teeth, tongue, lips, mouth and respiratory system to produce the appropriate syllables and sounds for proper speech. For this reason, people who have suffered brain damage as a result of an accident or birth defect often may suffer from speech problems.
Besides brain damage, there are many other possible causes for speech problems. These include:
- Hearing problems
- Vocal cord damage or paralysis
- Weak muscles or respiratory system
- Birth defects such as cleft palate
- Genetic diseases such as laryngeal cancer or Huntington’s disease
- Development conditions such as autism, ADHD, etc.
Speech and language disorders may run in the family or they may develop as individual cases over a period of time. By paying attention to your child’s or teen’s speech irregularities, you may be able to catch problems early before they have a chance to progress. Early diagnosis and treatment of speech problems can help children or teens overcome these difficulties quicker. Once a speech problem has been ingrained in a child’s life for some time, it may be more difficult to correct.
The following are some early warning signs that a child may be suffering from a speech problem:
- Repetition of sounds, most commonly perceived when people stutter
- Stretching out words or sounds
- Addition of unnecessary sounds to words
- Jerky head motions or excessive blinking when talking
- Sound distortions
- Signs of frustration or difficulty in communications
Many speech problems can be successfully treated through speech therapy. Parents who think their children may be experiencing speech problems should have their kids tested by a professional speech pathologist to confirm their condition. A qualified speech pathologist can help provide parents with an accurate diagnosis of their children’s speech difficulties.
Treatment of Speech Problems
The job of a speech pathologist is to identify and treat speech impediment problems. By observing your child or teen as he speaks, a speech pathologist can determine what type of problem he has, (i.e. articulation, fluency, motor skills) and how extensive the problem may be. Further evaluation and analysis via video or audio tapes will provide a more accurate diagnosis, giving your pathologist a better idea of treatment options. As every child is different, pathologists customize their treatment plans to meet individual need, taking into consideration your child’s age, personality, maturity and speech disorder.
As part of his treatment, your pathologist may suggest your child visit a speech therapist to learn breathing techniques, posture control and relaxation and voice exercises that can enhance his ability to speak. In addition to regular therapy, your child will need to practice these exercises and techniques at home on a daily basis to get maximum results.
Speech problems can be very frustrating for a child. Even adults with their higher level of maturity find it difficult to live with a speech disorder. Speech impediments in adults may be more severe than problems experienced by a child, especially if the adult has not sought treatment for his problem or treatments that were prescribed had little effect. Despite setbacks, adults with speech problems should continue to seek help in overcoming their speaking difficulties.
How to Deal with Speech Impediments
Most people don’t realize that speech-language disorders have little to do with a person’s intelligence. Your child or teen may be very astute and capable of learning at an extraordinary rate and still suffer from a speech problem. As a parent, you may need to educate teachers, family and friends on what to do and not do to offset your child’s particular problem.
If your child stutters, for example, those listening should wait patiently for him to complete what he wants to say. Finishing a stutterer’s sentences or suggesting he “slow down” or “breathe” will not encourage him to communicate. On the contrary, it will make him more self-conscious of his problem or make him feel inferior in this area. People with speech disorders should be treated with the same courtesy and respect as anyone else. With encouragement and support, children and teens can learn to deal with their speech difficulties in a positive manner and not give up on efforts to communicate with others.
Support groups offer another means of encouragement for children with speech problems. You can ask your child’s speech therapist to connect you with support groups in your area for your child’s particular problem. Getting to know other families with similar problems can be a tremendous help in alleviating any negative thoughts or feelings you may have concerning your child’s condition. It can also help your child to know he is not alone in his struggle. Through a support group, you may even glean valuable tips, ideas and counsel on how to help your child improve his condition. The benefits of joining a support group are many and varied. This option should not be overlooked if there are such groups in your local area.
A speech disorder need not hold your child or teen back from pursuing his dreams. A speech or language disorder may pose a challenge in your child accomplishing his goals, but even this challenge can work in his favor if it teaches him lessons on patience, perseverance and determination. Most children with speech impediments have to work harder to hone their communication skills. They will have good days and bad days in making progress. Some kids may struggle their whole lives to maintain proficiency in their speech. Keeping a positive spirit and perspective will help your children overcome their speaking difficulties to achieve their academic and professional dreams.