Speech therapy provides treatment and support for people experiencing speech disorders and communication problems. The approach is useful for treating several issues in both children and adults.

Speech is the expression of thoughts using articulate sounds. A speech disorder is an issue that prevents a person from communicating using spoken words. People may also refer to them as communication disorders.

Keep reading to learn more about speech therapy, including the conditions it may benefit, and how it works.

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Speech disorders can develop in multiple ways. They can occur due to:

  • nerve injuries to the brain
  • muscular paralysis
  • structural abnormalities
  • developmental disabilities

A 2015 study showed that around 8% of children aged between 3–17 years experienced a communication disorder during the last 12 months.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), around 7.5 million people in the United States have trouble using their voices.

Speech therapy is an effective treatment for speech and communication disorders.

With speech therapy, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) provides treatment and support for people with speech disorders. They are health professionals trained to evaluate and treat those with speech, language, or swallowing disorders.

People often refer to SLPs as speech therapists.

An SLP will begin by assessing the individual. They can then identify different types of speech disorders and how they can treat them.

Speech therapy for children

A child may participate in speech therapy in a classroom as part of a small group or in a one-on-one setting. This depends on which speech disorder they are experiencing.

The SLP will use therapeutic exercises and activities to help them overcome their specific issues.

These include:

  • Language activities: Involves playing and talking with the child while using pictures, books, and objects to stimulate language development. The SLP may also demonstrate correct pronunciation and use repetition exercises to help increase the child’s language skills.
  • Articulation activities: These will involve the SLP working closely with a child to help them with their pronunciation. The SLP will demonstrate how to make specific sounds, often during play activities.
  • Feeding and swallowing therapy: An SLP can work closely with a child with chewing or swallowing issues. The SLP can also use oral exercises to help strengthen the muscles in the mouth or work with different food textures to improve the child’s oral awareness.
  • Exercises: The SLP may use a number of tongue, lip, and jaw exercises, alongside facial massage to help strengthen the muscles around the mouth. This can help them with future speech and communication.

An SLP will also provide the child with strategies and homework. These exercises allow them to work through certain activities with a parent or caregiver, so they can continue to practice at home.

Speech therapy for adults

An SLP can use several different techniques as part of adult speech therapy. These include:

  • Social communication: The SLP may use problem-solving, memory activities, and conversation exercises to improve communication.
  • Breathing exercises: An SLP may use breathing exercises to assist with resonance issues.
  • Mouth exercises: These are a suitable way to strengthen oral muscles, which can help improve communication.
  • Swallowing exercises: Medical issues, such as Parkinson’s disease, oral cancer, or a stroke, may cause swallowing difficulties. An SLP can use swallowing exercises to help a person manage these issues.

An SLP can use speech therapy to treat several conditions, which include the following:

Stuttering

Stuttering is a speech disorder that specialists characterize by the repetition of sounds, syllables, or words. A person with a stutter often repeats or prolongs words, syllables, or phrases.

A person with a stutter knows what they want to say but has trouble speaking clearly or in a manner that flows naturally.

People often also refer to a stutter as a stammer.

Learn more about stuttering here.

Aphasia

Aphasia is a disorder that causes a person to have difficulty with language or speech. Damage to the parts of the brain that are responsible for language may trigger aphasia. Strokes are a leading cause of the condition in adults.

A person with aphasia may lose their ability to express and understand language, and may also have difficulty reading or writing.

According to the NIDCD, around 1 million people in the U.S. are living with aphasia, while almost 180,000 acquire the condition each year.

Learn more about aphasia here.

Articulation disorders

Specialists classify articulation disorder as a disorder without associations to another speech or linguistic disability.

Articulation disorders refer to people experiencing issues with the production of sound involving the coordinated movements of the lips, tongue, teeth, palate, and respiratory system.

Those with these disorders may have difficulty making certain sounds, for example, saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.”

A person with phonological disorders can make these sounds correctly, but they may use them in the wrong position of a word.

People with articulation disorders often mispronounce words. Many individuals also have issues with other areas of language development.

Specific language impairment

A specific language impairment (SLI) is a disorder that causes issues with language skills development in children. It is a condition that is not due to a known neurological, sensory, or intellectual disability.

SLIs can affect the way a child speaks, listens, reads, and writes. Specialists sometimes refer to them as developmental language disorder, language delay, or developmental dysphasia.

SLI is one of the most common developmental disorders, affecting around 7–8% of kindergarten children.

The condition can impact a person as they enter adulthood. Speech therapy can improve an individual’s specific issues and help with their social and work life.

Resonance disorders

A blockage or obstruction to the regular airflow through a person’s mouth as they talk can trigger a resonance disorder. These disorders alter the vibrations responsible for speaking, leading to speech becoming unclear.

Healthcare providers often associate this speaking disorder with cleft palates and other neurological disorders.

Several studies show speech therapy is an effective method for helping children and adults develop their communication skills.

One study of over 700 children with speech or language difficulties shows that speech therapy had a significant positive effect.

The results show that an average of 6 hours of speech therapy over 6 months significantly improved communication performance. Speech therapy was also much more effective than no treatment over the same period.

Another study looked at the effects of speech therapy on adults who had experienced a stroke and developed aphasia. The data suggest that speech therapy is effective in treating these communication issues.

The research also points to its efficacy in the early phase after a stroke, typically the first 6 months, and shows that intensive treatments have a greater effect.

Another study also suggests that speech therapy can be effective in treating people with aphasia. This study shows that 16 sessions of speech therapy across eight successive weeks helped improve communication skills.

There are some alternatives to speech therapy, which a person may use alongside speech therapy. These include:

Music therapy

Music therapy involves a number of specific music-led activities. These activities use music to strengthen language, communication, and social skills. A study shows it can help facilitate speech development in children.

Learn more about music therapy here.

Neurofeedback treatment

This treatment uses sensors attached to a person’s scalp, which record brainwave activity. Doctors then use a screen to display this activity. The person can then learn to control their brain functions as they communicate.

It is an effective treatment for speech problems in people who have experienced a stroke. However, it may have limited long-term benefits, with the research stating it cannot conclusively prove its efficacy.

Parent-implemented language interventions

This approach involves a parent or caregiver using routines and activities to help children develop their language skills. One study looked at parent-implemented language interventions with young children between 18–60 months of age.

The results showed that parents who implemented communication and language interventions had a significant, positive impact on the language skills of children with and without intellectual disabilities.

While speech and communication disorders are common in the U.S., speech therapy is proven to be an effective treatment for these disorders.

Speech therapy is effective for both children and adults, and SLPs can use various techniques to help a person improve their communication skills.