Speech and language disorders refer to problems in communication and related areas such as oral motor function. These delays and disorders range from simple sound substitutions to the inability to understand or use language or the oral-motor mechanism for functional speech and feeding. Some causes of speech and language disorders include hearing loss, neurological disorders, brain injury strokes, mental retardation, drug abuse, physical impairments such as cleft lip or palate, and vocal abuse or misuse. Frequently, however, the cause is unknown.

Incidence

 One in ten Americans has a communication disorder because of stroke, an undetected hearing loss, a stuttering problem, a head injury, a language disorder, or some other disorder or problem that interferes with speech, language, or hearing.

An estimated six million children under the age of 18 have a speech or language disorder. Boys make up two-thirds of the population. Over one million children received services for speech or language disorders under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the 1997-1998 school years. This number represents a 10.5% increase from a decade earlier.

Characteristics

 A child’s communication is considered delayed when the child is noticeably behind his or her peers in the acquisition of speech and/or language skills. Sometimes a child will have greater receptive (understanding) than expressive (speaking) language skills, but this is not always the case.

Speech and language disorders can affect the way children talk, understand, analyze or process information. Speech disorders include the clarity, voice quality, and fluency of a child’s spoken words. Language disorders include a child’s ability to hold meaningful conversations, understand others, problem solve, read and comprehend, and express thoughts through spoken or written words.

Speech disorders refer to difficulties producing speech sounds or problems with voice quality. They might be characterized by an interruption in the flow or rhythm of speech, such as stuttering, which is called dysfluency. Speech disorders may be problems with the way sounds are formed, called articulation or phonological disorders, or they may present as difficulties with the pitch, volume or quality of the voice. There may be a combination of several problems. People with speech disorders have trouble using some speech sounds, which can also be a symptom of a delay. They may say “see” when they mean “ski” or they may have trouble using other sounds like “l” or “r”. Listeners may have trouble understanding what someone with a speech disorder is trying to say. People with voice disorders may have trouble with the way their voices sound.

A language disorder is impairment in the ability to understand and/or use words in context, both verbally and nonverbally. Some characteristics of language disorders include improper use of words and their meanings, inability to express ideas, inappropriate grammatical patterns, reduced vocabulary, and inability to follow directions. One, or a combination of these characteristics, may occur in children who are affected by language learning disabilities or developmental language delay. Children may hear or see a word but not be able to understand its meaning. They may have trouble getting others to understand what they are trying to communicate.

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