What is a speech-language therapist?

Speech-language therapists (SLT) or speech-language pathologists (SLP), assess and treat children and adults with communication disorders. This involves a number of different areas:

Speech disorders occur when a person has difficulty producing speech sounds correctly. This is called articulation. 

A fluency disorder is an interruption in the flow of speaking. This includes repetitions and/or prolongations of sounds, syllables, words, and phrases. The person’s speech may also have excessive tension. They may avoid speaking, and exhibit, struggle behaviours. Fluency disorders are often referred to as  stuttering or stammering. 

Voice disorders occur when voice quality, pitch, and loudness differ or are inappropriate for an individual’s age, gender, cultural background, or geographic location.

Language disorders occur when a person has trouble understanding others (receptive language), or sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings (expressive language). Language disorders may be spoken or written. Written language disorders include reading difficulties such as dyslexia. Language disorders may involve the form (phonology, morphology, syntax), content (semantics), and/or use (pragmatics) of language in functional and socially appropriate ways.

Social communication disorders occur when a person has trouble with the social use of verbal and nonverbal communication. These disorders may include problems (a) communicating for social purposes (e.g., greeting, commenting, asking questions), (b) talking in different ways to suit the listener and setting, and (c) following rules for conversation and story-telling. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder have social communication problems. Social communication disorders are also found individuals with other conditions, such as traumatic brain injury.

Cognitive-communication disorders include problems organising thoughts, paying attention, remembering, planning, and/or problem-solving. These disorders usually happen as a result of a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or dementia, although they can occur from birth. 

Swallowing disorders (dysphagia) are feeding and swallowing difficulties, which may follow an illness, surgery, stroke, or injury.

Additionally, speech-language therapists:

  • Provide rehabilitation for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Provide augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems for individuals with severe expressive and/or language comprehension disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder or progressive neurological disorders.

In South Africa and the United Kingdom, the profession is generally referred to as a speech-language therapist. In America and Australia, the profession is referred to as a speech-language pathologist, but the terms are used interchangeably.

Speech and language therapists (SLTs) are allied health professionals. They work with parents, carers and other professionals, such as teachers, nurses, occupational therapists and doctors.

Who benefits from speech and language therapy?

Speech and language therapy benefits people of all ages, for example:

Infants: SLTs support premature babies and infants with conditions such as cerebral palsy, cleft palate and Down syndrome from very early in life. Babies may have difficulty with drinking, swallowing and early play and communication skills.

Children: SLTs support children with primary speech, language and communication difficulties, such as stuttering, as well as speech, language and communication difficulties that are secondary to other conditions such as learning difficulties and hearing problems.

Adults with learning difficulties: SLTs support adults who have developmental conditions such as learning disabilities, autism and Down syndrome. SLPs also  support adults with communication and/or swallowing difficulties as a result of medical conditions, such as stroke, head and neck cancer, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

What is a speech pathologist, what's your superpower?
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