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Speech difficulties are often referred to as ‘speech impediments’, however this is now a fairly outdated term that was used in the past to describe any difficulty with speaking, such as a lisp or a stutter. It is more helpful to use terms that characterise the nature of the difficulty. As speech pathologists we use the terms 'speech delay' and 'speech disorder'. As the name suggests, a speech delay is the failure to develop speech sounds at the expected chronological age. A child may achieve speech milestones in sequence, but do so months behind their peers.
Different from delayed speech development, the term speech disorder is used to describe any errors of speech that do not reflect typical development. A child is identified with an articulation disorder when they are unable to copy speech sounds in isolation (on their own). An articulation disorder occurs because the child is unable to correctly position their tongue/lips to make certain sounds. Typically, the later developing speech sounds are affected. Common examples include:
- replacing 'r' with 'w'
- difficulty with groups of consonants, e.g. spoon, blue, fast etc.
- lisping (i.e. replacing 's' with 'th')
- lateral 's' (slushy quality)
- difficulty with multi-syllabic words (e.g. computer, helicopter)
It should be noted that articulation and phonological difficulties can co-occur. For more information on phonological error patterns, follow this link.
Below are some of the warning signs of speech difficulties, that may indicate a potential speech delay or disorder. If your child is showing any of the following signs it is recommended that advice from a speech pathologist is sought. Your child may:
- use very few words, or use gestures and grunts in place of words
- be difficult to understand for extended family/friends and unfamiliar listeners beyond age 3
- get frustrated with attempts to communicate
- use speech that appears very effortful
- use speech that is 'slushy' in quality
- be lisping beyond the age of approximately 7 years
- use speech that appears 'babyish' in comparison to peers
- be difficult to understand when using longer sentences
- have a history of ear infections at early ages
A helpful guideline to remember is that by 3 years of age a child should be 75-100% intelligible, that is, you should understand what they say the majority of time without it being repeated.