Speech impediments in children are more common than many think. Studies show that nearly 1 in 12 children in the United States are afflicted with some sort of speech impediment or disorder in their voice, speech, or language. Approximately a third of those have multiple disorders.
In simplest terms, a speech impediment is a type of disruption of normal speech. Common disruptions of this kind might include lisping, stuttering, misarticulation of sounds, and other symptoms. In many cases, the cause behind a speech impediment is not known. There are some physical or neurological conditions that can lead to speech impediments, such as a cleft palate or traumatic brain injury.
A speech impediment can be a major emotional burden and obstacle for a child. Speech impediments can cause a lot of bullying from other children, leading to anxiety and low self-esteem that may even cause them to stop talking entirely.
Fortunately, in many cases, speech impediments do not have to be permanent. There are a variety of therapies and treatments available that can help minimize or even eliminate a speech impediment entirely.
Common Speech Impediments in Children
First, let’s take a look at the kind of speech impediments that typically manifest in children. Speech impediments can generally be identified by one of four distinct tendencies:
- Distortion, in which spoken sounds are distorted and lead to miscommunication and frustration.
- Substitution, in which children will substitute one sound for another, perhaps because of difficulty pronouncing the first term.
- Omission, which is the leaving consonants off of words to make them easier to pronounce.
- Additions, in which extra consonants or syllables are added for the same reason as omissions.
Here are some of the more common, specific speech impediments children might struggle with:
- Fluency disorders, such as stuttering and stammering. This can either be the repetition of syllables or involuntary pauses. Stuttering has been shown to often be linked to anxiety, low self-esteem, or traumatic childhood events.
- Speech sound disorder: A speech sound disorder is difficulty pronouncing a particular sound, such as r or s These can either be due to physical difficulty producing the sound, or stemming from a child struggling with understanding the distinction between certain language sounds.
- Lisping, which occurs when a child specifically struggles with producing the s sound due to their tongue being too far forward.
- Apraxia of speech, which involves the moving around of syllables and phonetic elements within a word. Apraxia can be caused by events such as stroke or brain injury, or may be a developmental disorder.
- Dysarthria, often caused by muscle or nerve damage, manifesting as slowed or slurred speech.
- Aphasia, a neurological disorder which makes it difficult for children to communicate verbally at all or even understand words spoken to them.
- Voice disorders: speaking too loud or too soft, harsh or hoarse, or inappropriate pitch for the age.
- Resonance disorders such as hyponasality, hypernasality and cul-de-sac resonance.
Overcoming a Speech Impediment
As with so many things in life, children will need help and involvement from their parents in order to overcome a speech impediment.
First, get a diagnosis. Early intervention is key for children with speech disorders, as treatment is often much easier and more effective during the toddler or preschool years, when language learning is at its childhood peak. A professional diagnosis will also help determine if the child’s speech issues are related to a hearing disorder. One of the first steps you should take is talking to your doctor, who can arrange for a hearing test and refer you to a speech-language pathologist for evaluation.
Next, work with a speech therapist (also called a speech-language pathologist), a skilled professional with a degree in communication sciences and disorders who can evaluate your child’s specific needs and begin speech therapy sessions.
It’s very important that parents be involved in these sessions, as well as practice and work with their child on a daily basis to help the process along. There are parental tools that can help with this home therapy.
If the speech condition is physical in nature, then medical intervention or surgery might be necessary. Conditions such as a cleft palate, weak oral muscles, enlarged adenoids are likely to require professional medical intervention — another reason to obtain an official diagnosis.
During this entire process, it’s important to inform the school so that teachers are aware of the problems so they can support the child’s progress and prevent any frustrating misunderstandings that could cause anxiety or self-esteem issues for the child.
Finally, it’s of paramount importance that parents be patient and kind. Praise your child’s progress, stay interested and involved in speech therapy and home practice, and help them get through the inevitable moments of frustration that are sure to come. Your involvement will make a huge difference in their progress.