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What are speech sound disorders?

Have you heard of a speech sound disorder before? Maybe your pediatrician mentioned it at the last wellness check, or a mom was talking about it at the playground. Speech sound disorders (SSDs) can differ from person to person depending on their exact nature. Let’s take a deeper look at what SSDs are and how you can recognize possible signs of one.

Defining SSDs

The definition of speech sound disorders, according to the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), is as follows: Speech sound disorders is an umbrella term referring to any difficulty or combination of difficulties with perception, motor production, or phonological representation of speech sounds and speech segments—including phonotactic rules governing permissible speech sound sequences in a language. Speech sound disorders can be organic or functional in nature. Organic speech sound disorders result from an underlying motor/neurological, structural, or sensory/perceptual cause. Functional speech sound disorders are idiopathic—they have no known cause.”

Let’s break that definition down into bite-size chunks so we can understand what it actually means!

  • Difficulties with perception: Hearing loss or impairment can impact the ability to perceive sounds and therefore produce sounds correctly.

  • Difficulties with motor production: The physical ability to produce sounds can be affected by structural differences or motor disorders that impact movements needed for speech.

  • Difficulties with phonological representation: The mental representation of individual sounds and combinations of sounds impact the way we produce sounds.

  • Organic speech sound disorders: This includes any SSDs that are related to, or a result of, a known disorder or abnormality. Examples of organic SSDs include:

    • Motor/neurological disorders such as apraxia of speech or dysarthria

    • Structural abnormalities such as cleft lip/palate or other anomalies

    • Sensory/perceptual disorders such as hearing loss

  • Functional speech sound disorders: This is used when the SSD has no identifiable cause (the technical term for this is idiopathic). Functional SSDs can be broken down into two subsections:

    • Articulation disorder, which relates to errors in the production of speech sounds (e.g., sound distortions and substitutions)

    • Phonological disorder, which relates to predictable, pattern-based errors that affect multiple sounds (e.g., fronting, stopping, and final consonant deletion)

Recognizing SSDs

Around three years of age, most kids are speaking clearly and are generally understood by adults. More familiar adults may occasionally need to “interpret” what the child is saying to those who aren’t around them as frequently. Some signs that may indicate the presence of a speech sound disorder include:

  • Trouble moving the jaw, tongue and lips

  • Struggling to make specific speech sounds

  • Not speaking as well as other children their age

  • Not speaking clearly enough for others to understand

  • Suddenly changing pitch or volume while talking

  • Hoarse, raspy or nasal voice

  • Running out of air while speaking

  • Lisping or stuttering

  • Having a hard time chewing, blowing their nose, or otherwise using muscles in their face

Speech sound disorders usually start in early childhood, but can also show up later. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) use a combination of standardized tests and subjective assessment to determine if a child’s speaking patterns/habits are considered disordered. If you’re not sure, you can always consult with an SLP to figure out if your child would benefit from speech therapy!

Treating SSDs

Once the speech sound disorder is identified and the child’s specific sound errors are determined, speech therapy can begin to teach them how to produce these sounds. During treatment, kids learn to make the sounds they struggle with and successfully discriminate them from the incorrect sounds they use. This can look like a child working on K sounds while learning not to substitute them with the T sound like they’ve been doing (for example, “cup” might sound like “tup”). The length of treatment usually depends on the number of sound errors, the age of the child, and the ability to generalize skills learned in therapy to all speaking situations.

If you have more questions about speech sound disorders or suspect your child might have one, reach out to the Magic Speech Bus and I’d be happy to see how I can help you!


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