Speech Impediment

Overview

What is a speech impediment?

Speech impediment, or speech disorder, happens when your child can’t speak or can’t speak so people understand what they’re saying. In some cases, a speech impediment is a sign of physical or developmental differences.

Left untreated, a speech impediment can make it difficult for children to learn to read and write. Children with speech impediments might also have trouble socializing. There are some speech impediments like tongue tie or cleft palate that may be treated with surgery. In most cases, however, speech therapy helps treat speech impediments.

What are some speech impediment types?

Some common speech impediments are:

  • Stuttering. This condition might indicate developmental delay, an inherited condition or a sign your child’s brain isn’t coordinating the functions that drive speech.
  • Articulation errors. This happens when children can’t form speech sounds because they have trouble placing their tongue in the right position. Lisping is an example of an articulation error.
  • Tongue-tie (ankyloglossia). This is a physical condition that makes it hard for children to move their tongues.
  • Apraxia. This condition happens when a child’s brain can’t coordinate the muscles that enable speech.
  • Dysarthria. This condition happens when children slur their words because of brain damage.
  • Selective mutism. This condition happens when children become so anxious about being in certain places and situations that they can’t speak.

Are speech impediments common?

Studies show approximately 5% of children entering first grade have noticeable speech impediments.

What’s the difference between a speech impediment and a language disorder?

A speech impediment happens when your child’s mouth, jaw, tongue and vocal tract can’t work together to produce recognizable words. A language disorder happens when your child has trouble understanding what's being said or people have trouble understanding what your child is saying. For example, your child might use one word when they mean to use another word. They might also say words out of order.

What’s the difference between a speech impediment and speech as a child’s developmental milestone?

Speech is an important developmental milestone. Healthcare providers track children’s development against timelines. A speech impediment might be a reason why your child’s speech isn’t developing as it should, but it might not be the only reason.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes speech impediments?

There’s no single cause for speech impediments. For example, stuttering might be a sign of a developmental delay, it could be hereditary or it could happen because a child’s brain can’t coordinate the functions that help them to speak.

Tongue-tie, on the other hand, is a physical condition that makes it hard for your child to move their tongue.

Speech impediments can also indicate an unrelated underlying condition, such as:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with ASD have trouble with social interactions and with interpreting and using non-verbal and verbal communication.
  • Dyslexia. This is a common learning disability that makes it difficult for people to read.
  • Cerebral palsy. People with cerebral palsy have trouble coordinating their muscles, movement and coordination.
  • Hearing loss. Hearing loss in children is one of the most common congenital disorders.

Diagnosis and Tests

How are speech impediments diagnosed?

Healthcare providers usually begin diagnosis with a comprehensive developmental evaluation. This evaluation determines if the suspected speech impediment is a sign of an underlying physical or developmental problem.

Management and Treatment

What’s the treatment for a speech impediment?

Speech therapy can help if a delay in development affects your child’s speech. Speech therapy is a helpful part of treatment for children who have conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy or hearing loss. Some speech impediments may require surgery.

Prevention

How can I reduce my child’s risk of having a speech impediment?

Most speech impediments cannot be predicted or prevented. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider if you notice your child is struggling to speak or not speaking. They can assess your child’s speech, identify any potential problems and recommend steps you can take to help your child.

Outlook / Prognosis

Can you fix a speech impediment?

Every speech impediment type requires different treatment. Generally speaking, speech therapy can make a significant difference for children whose speech impediment isn't related to other conditions.

Living With

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

  • What kind of speech impediment does my child have?
  • What caused my child’s speech impediment?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • Can my child’s speech impediment be cured?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

It might be hard to learn your child has a speech impediment that keeps them from connecting with the world around them. Left untreated, a speech impediment might cause a child to struggle in school and in life. Fortunately, early diagnosis and treatment can help your child to overcome their speech challenges. Talk to your healthcare provider about programs and treatments that may help your child.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/19/2021.

References

  • Broomfield J, Dodd B. Is speech and language therapy effective for children with primary speech and language impairment? (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22026565/) Report of a randomized control trial. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 2011 Nov-Dec;46(6):628-640. Accessed 11/5/2021.
  • McLaughlin, Maura R. Speech and Language Delay in Children. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2011/0515/p1183.html) Am Fam Physician. 2011 May;83(10):1183-1188. Accessed 11/5/2021.
  • National Institute on Deafness and Other Disorders. What is Voice? What is Speech? What is Language? (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/what-is-voice-speech-language) Accessed 11/5/2021.

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