Many young children develop speech skills within a wide range of time and with different capabilities. However, by a certain point, most children have begun to learn how to speak and communicate effectively. Of course, when parents notice that their child isn’t keeping up with other children, they worry. While most children develop appropriately given enough time, some children do experience issues with speech-language development.
Delays in speech development are caused by a variety of reasons, so it is important to understand what these potential causes are, as well as why a thorough, professional evaluation may be needed for some children. Too often parents, relatives, neighbors, and school officials believe they know for sure that something is off, but in fact, their guesses may be dead wrong. Instead, accurate diagnosis of speech-language problems requires a thorough evaluation by trained professionals and includes testing of both speech-language and hearing to determine the root cause of any potential problems.
The inability to develop speech and language properly over a reasonable time period directly impacts a child’s ability to adjust to and mingle with peers, family, and community. Some of the most obvious speech delays affect the child’s ability to form words correctly, resulting in pauses, hesitancy, and even stuttering. These effects can be socially devastating.
The causes of child speech and language problems involve many different issues. These include:
- General Speech-Language Delay – This is probably the most common and easily remedied problem. The reason this occurs is that the child is learning more slowly than his or her peers. It’s a temporary situation that can be addressed with a combination of therapy as well as at home carryover. After therapy is initiated, many children develop their speech-language skills appropriately and catch up to peers within a relatively short period of time.
- Expressive Language Problems – With this type of delay, a child thinks and understands clearly and develops normal relationships, but he or she has problems effectively utilizing expressive language versus basic talking. Speech is delayed because the child is struggling with how to communicate effectively. Again, speech therapy is the appropriate response.
- Receptive Language Problems – With this condition, the child comprehension is decreased and s/he speaks with an unclear and sparse use of words and has a problem connecting words with directions, such as pointing at an object or carryout instructions. Speech therapy will be needed, but often these cases need intensive clinical help and treatment may take much longer periods of time.
- Autism – Children with a variety of disorders along the autism spectrum display a number of developmental problems, including speech delay and the inability to communicate clearly. Repetitive activity is also common. The child has profound difficulty sustaining long-term communication, and even with therapy, regression often occurs after slight improvements. In these cases professional evaluation and treatment are needed for accurate diagnosis. The treatment, intensive language training and behavioral modification, continues into later years.
- Cerebral Palsy – This condition causes significant problems with physical vocal coordination. The child may have serious problems controlling spasms in the tongue area. He or she also often suffers from hearing limitations and disconnects between stimuli and cognitive function. Children affected by this condition often undergo intensive symbol recognition therapy as a communication alternative to vocal speech along with speech therapy. While speech may continue to evidence developmental delays, such children find ways to communicate effectively despite the condition.
- Childhood Apraxia of Speech – This issue interferes with a child’s ability to make the right sounds for desired words. As a result, his or her speech tends to be very impaired and may be difficult for listeners to understand. Children affected often add gesturing to compensate. Multiple treatment approaches are applied to this condition, with comprehensive assessment being a prerequisite to effective treatment.
- Dysarthia – This condition, in either a mild or severe form, affects speech accordingly. A child’s speech may be disrupted and difficult to understand. Similar to apraxia, children tend to overcompensate with physical gestures to get their point across. Speech-language therapy results in some improvement, with multiple approaches needed to address this problem effectively.
- Hearing loss post-speech – In some cases, children learn to speak but then lose their hearing, which may cause speech regression. Eventually speech clarity and quality drop as the hearing loss continues. Further, affected children stop adding new words to their vocabulary. With the help of professionals (audiologist, speech language pathologist) to learn sign language, read lips, and use hearing aids, most speech problems are overcome. Speech enunciation may continue to be hampered somewhat, however.
- Hearing loss pre-speech – In these situations, speech development is delayed because the child can’t hear words to then repeat them correctly. Speech is often slurred, with the wrong tone or emphasis. There is also a potential loss of demonstrative speech with connected gestures. Again, the help of related professionals (audiologist, speech language pathologist) is critical, along with alternate communication training and hearing aids.
- Intellectual limitations – Speech/language in this scenario is delayed because there is a cognitive limitation. Children in such cases are often treated professionally after a full evaluation, frequently being referred to child development centers for long-term support and training. All treatment is under the guidance and oversight of related professionals.
As noted in the above details, a child’s speech development issue may stem from a number of different causes, so it is important to obtain a proper, professional evaluation. These 10 causes of childhood speech and language problems provide a good starting point to understanding why speech limitations occur.
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 speech pathologist jobs and early intervention service jobs.