Speech and language therapy

Speech and language therapy is a process that assesses, diagnoses and treats those with communication difficulties. Alongside this, speech therapy can also help to manage and improve eating/swallowing problems.

Statistics from Bupa suggest that 2.5 million people in the UK have difficulty speaking. These problems can go on to affect personal development and well-being if left untreated. The role of a speech and language therapist is to create a treatment plan that will help patients improve their communication skills and reach their full potential.

Typically speech therapy is used for those with learning disabilities and those with genetic disorders. It can also be used for people who have problems eating/swallowing and those whose speech has been impaired due to illness, disability or accident.

A speech and language therapist will work with you, the patient, your family and any other healthcare professionals involved. This ensures a well-rounded, tailored treatment plan.

Keep reading to understand why someone may look to see a speech therapist, how they can help and what speech and language therapy involves.

How can speech and language therapy help?

Being able to communicate effectively plays a crucial role in educational, intellectual and social development. Not being able to speak or communicate can therefore have a huge impact on someone's life. This is where a speech and language therapist can help.

Usually a speech therapist will help children or adults with talking problems, such as:

  • difficulty understanding language
  • difficulty talking
  • difficulty swallowing and eating
  • vocal problems
  • stammers.

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.

Autism

Those on the autistic spectrum can find socialising difficult. This is usually because they find it hard to read social cues or find it hard to understand what is being communicated. Interestingly autistic children are at a greater risk of developing swallowing problems too. In these instances speech therapy for children can be effective.

Cancer (mouth or throat)

Treating cancer of the throat or mouth may involve surgery and/or radiotherapy. All of this (and the cancer itself) can disrupt the way the muscles and tissues in this area work. Understandably this often leads to speech problems.

Cleft palate

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 improve.

Head injury

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 is affected, for others their ability to understand language is hindered. This is all dependent on the specific injury itself.

Hearing loss

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 helps them develop language skills better.

Learning disability

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.

Neurological disorders

Conditions such as dementia and Parkinson's may result in unsteady speech. This can lead to failed communication between the sufferer and their carers. For advanced cases, swallowing problems can also develop making feeding difficult.

Stroke

The effects of stroke can cause speech and language difficulties. This occurs when the part of the brain responsible for language is damaged by the stroke. Swallowing and feeding problems may also occur. 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. In turn, this 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:

1) speech, language and communication

2) swallowing, feeding and eating.

The two are often linked. A speech and language therapist will be trained in all areas of communication from speech itself to body language and facial expressions. This knowledge will be applied alongside treatment from the medical team for a fully rounded treatment plan.

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. Keep reading to find out how this is achieved.

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 key stages in speech therapy: assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

Assessment

In this initial stage your speech and language therapist will examine you thoroughly to assess your specific communication/swallowing problem. This will help he or she 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 presenting different toys to the child and asking questions. He or she will also speak to the parents and may also need to consult teachers and doctors for a clear picture of the problem.

Diagnosis

If you are struggling with language and communication, your speech therapist will observe how you make certain sounds, how you communicate and how you understand other people's language.

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 devise an appropriate treatment plan. This is made in conjunction with yourself, your family and any other health and social care professionals involved.  

Treatment

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.

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.

Speech and language therapy for swallowing and feeding problems

During treatment for feeding and swallowing problems, speech therapists will help prepare food and drink to make it easier to swallow. This can involve adding thickening agents to liquids to slow them down, or watering down/mashing food. These small tips can make the world of difference to 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 and language therapy - what to expect

After you have attended your initial assessment and a diagnosis has been made, your speech therapist will thoroughly explain to you, your carers and any doctors involved, 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 robust and 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.

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