Speech and language therapy
Speech and language therapy is a process that supports those with communication and eating/swallowing difficulties. Here we will learn more about speech and language therapy and where to find a speech therapist.
What is speech and language therapy?
According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, nearly 20% of the population will experience communication difficulties at some point in their lives. The role of a speech and language therapist is to create a treatment plan to help patients improve their communication skills.
Speech therapy is often used for those with learning disabilities and those with genetic conditions. It can also be used for people who have problems eating/swallowing and those whose speech has been affected by illness, disability or accident.
A speech and language therapist will work with you, your family and any other healthcare professionals involved. This ensures a well-rounded, tailored treatment plan.
How can speech and language therapy help?
Being able to communicate effectively plays a crucial role in our lives. Not being able to communicate can therefore have a huge impact on well-being. This is where a speech and language therapist can help.
Usually, a speech therapist will help children or adults with problems, such as:
- difficulty understanding language
- difficulty talking
- difficulty swallowing and eating
- vocal problems
In many cases, these difficulties derive from disability, illness or injury. A speech therapist will take whatever the cause is into consideration, to tailor the treatment plan.
For a better understanding of what may cause a communication problem, take a look at some common causes below.
Some autistic people can find elements of communication difficult. In these instances, speech and language therapists can provide support within a team of professionals.
Cancer (mouth or throat)
Treating cancer of the throat or mouth may involve surgery and/or radiotherapy. All of this (and cancer itself) can disrupt the way the muscles and tissues in this area work. Speech and language therapists can support patients in their recovery to help improve any speaking or swallowing difficulties this may cause.
Those born with a cleft palate can develop both speech and swallowing problems. Surgery is normally carried out to correct the problem, however, speech and language therapy can help patients recover and improve.
Some head injuries can lead to muscle weakness and coordination difficulties. This in turn can create problems with communication. For some, their eating and swallowing are affected, for others their ability to understand language is hindered. This is all dependent on the specific injury itself.
Not being able to hear well can make talking difficult. Problems range from being unable to say certain words to being unable to understand language at all. Young people with hearing problems can especially benefit from speech therapy as it can help them develop language skills better.
Learning disabilities affect various aspects of a person's life. For some, it impacts their ability to communicate. A greater understanding of communication can vastly improve quality of life for those with learning disabilities.
Conditions such as dementia and Parkinson's may result in unsteady speech. In some cases, swallowing problems can also develop making feeding difficult. When this happens, a speech and language therapist can provide support.
The effects of a stroke can cause speech and language difficulties. This can happen when the part of the brain responsible for language is damaged by the stroke. Swallowing and feeding problems may also happen as a result. This happens when the muscles surrounding the mouth and throat are damaged by the stroke.
The hope is that through the treatment provided within speech therapy, people with the conditions described above become better able to communicate. This then helps to improve social skills and boost both self-esteem and independence.
The benefits and results of speech therapy will however be dependent on a number of factors, including the severity of the condition. To understand whether or not speech and language therapy would benefit you, it is best to talk to your doctor or a speech and language therapist.
What do speech therapists do?
Speech and language therapists typically look at two areas:
- speech, language and communication
- swallowing, feeding and eating
The two are often linked. A speech and language therapist will be trained in all areas of communication from the speech itself to body language and facial expressions. This knowledge will often be applied alongside treatment from the medical team.
Speech therapy can be provided in a group setting or on a one-to-one basis. This will depend on the needs of the patient. In terms of where speech therapy can take place, there are several different settings it is offered in, including hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and your own home.
The overall aim of speech and language therapy is to improve communication problems and reduce their impact on the patient's well-being.
Speech and language therapy for swallowing and feeding problems
During treatment for feeding and swallowing problems, speech therapists can help prepare food and drink to make it easier to swallow. This may involve adding thickening agents to liquids to slow them down, or watering down/mashing food. These small tips can make a world of difference for those who struggle with swallowing.
As well as making food and water easier to swallow, it is likely that the speech therapist will suggest exercises to strengthen muscles around the mouth. They may also recommend certain head positions that will help the process. In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help counteract the overproduction of saliva.
Speech therapy for children
For some children, improving their speech simply requires advice from a speech and language therapist and extra support at home/school. If further treatment is required, the speech therapist will usually use games and activities to help better their communication skills. This form of play is designed to improve interaction skills.
For older children who are in education, the speech therapist will focus on creating a supportive environment and use positive reinforcement. They will also talk to the child's teachers to offer advice on how they can best support the child in classes. If the communication problems are severe, a special needs school may be required.
What is involved in speech and language therapy?
If you think you could benefit from speech and language therapy, it can be helpful to know what to expect. While the techniques used may differ, there are generally three stages in speech therapy: assessment, diagnosis and treatment.
In this initial stage, your speech and language therapist will examine you thoroughly to assess your specific communication/swallowing problem. This will help them to devise the right course of treatment for you.
Your speech therapist will also look at your medical history to see how your communication problem is affecting you. At this stage, it is likely that they will also want to speak to your family and/or doctors to gain a better understanding of your circumstances.
In speech therapy for children, the therapist will likely play with them to see how well they are currently able to communicate. This may involve the therapist offering different toys to the child and asking questions. They will also speak to the parents and may also need to consult teachers and doctors for a clear picture of the problem.
If you are struggling with language and communication, your speech therapist can observe how you communicate and how you understand other people.
If you are showing signs of vocal problems, such as hoarseness, they may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. This is to ensure there are no underlying medical conditions that require treatment. In some instances, cognitive problems can be the root cause of communication difficulties. If this is the case, the speech therapist will need to be made aware so they can communicate effectively themselves and adapt the treatment plan.
When it comes to assessing swallowing or feeding problems a speech therapist will usually look at how you currently swallow. In some cases, an X-ray may be needed for a more in-depth assessment and diagnosis.
Once a diagnosis has been made, your speech therapist will create an appropriate treatment plan. This is made in conjunction with yourself, your family and any other health and social care professionals involved.
The treatment involved in speech and language therapy will vary depending on the nature of the problem. Generally, however, it will involve exercises to help control breathing, articulate and/or slow down speech. Those with hearing impairments may also be taught signs and gestures to help them communicate more effectively.
The aim is to join the dots between the mechanics of speaking and gaining a better understanding of language. Doing this will involve learning new techniques and practising both in speech and language therapy sessions and at home.
What to expect
After you have attended your initial assessment and a diagnosis has been made, your speech therapist will explain what your treatment plan will be. If required, training will also be provided to anyone involved in your care (or the care of your children, if they are undergoing speech therapy). This will ensure all parties are echoing the therapist's aims, for a well-rounded treatment plan.
Throughout the course of your treatment, your speech and language therapist may carry out further assessments. This will help monitor your progress and identify any changing needs or problem areas. A follow-up appointment is generally made a few months after therapy has begun, to assess how many sessions you are likely to need.
The number of speech and language therapy sessions you'll require will depend on the type and severity of your speech/swallowing problem. The speed of your progress will also be taken into account.
Once your therapy is complete and you are discharged, your speech therapist can offer advice as to how you can continue your treatment at home. This will promote long-term improvements while helping to improve quality of life.