Speech Impediment Guide: Definition, Causes, and Resources

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Communication is a cornerstone of human relationships. When an individual struggles to verbalize information, thoughts, and feelings, it can cause major barriers in personal, learning, and business interactions.

Speech impediments, or speech disorders, can lead to feelings of insecurity and frustration. They can also cause worry for family members and friends who don’t know how to help their loved ones express themselves.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that speech disorders can be treated, and in many cases, cured. Health professionals in fields including speech-language pathology and audiology can work with patients to overcome communication disorders, and individuals and families can learn techniques to help.

A woman struggles to communicate due to a speech disorder.

What Is a Speech Impediment?

Commonly referred to as a speech disorder, a speech impediment is a condition that impacts an individual’s ability to speak fluently, correctly, or with clear resonance or tone. Individuals with speech disorders have problems creating understandable sounds or forming words, leading to communication difficulties.

Some 7.7% of U.S. children — or 1 in 12 youths between the ages of 3 and 17 — have speech, voice, language, or swallowing disorders, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). About 70 million people worldwide, including some 3 million Americans, experience stuttering difficulties, according to the Stuttering Foundation.

Common signs of a speech disorder

There are several symptoms and indicators that can point to a speech disorder.

  • Unintelligible speech — A speech disorder may be present when others have difficulty understanding a person’s verbalizations.
  • Omitted sounds — This symptom can include the omission of part of a word, such as saying “bo” instead of “boat,” and may include omission of consonants or syllables.
  • Added sounds — This can involve adding extra sounds in a word, such as “buhlack” instead of “black,” or repeating sounds like “b-b-b-ball.”
  • Substituted sounds — When sounds are substituted or distorted, such as saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit,” it may indicate a speech disorder.
  • Use of gestures — When individuals use gestures to communicate instead of words, a speech impediment may be the cause.
  • Inappropriate pitch — This symptom is characterized by speaking with a strange pitch or volume.

In children, signs might also include a lack of babbling or making limited sounds. Symptoms may also include the incorrect use of specific sounds in words, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). This may include the sounds p, m, b, w, and h among children aged 1-2, and k, f, g, d, n, and t for children aged 2-3.

Signs of speech disorders include unintelligible speech and sound omissions, substitutions, and additions.

Categories of Speech Impediments

Speech impediments can range from speech sound disorders (articulation and phonological disorders) to voice disorders. Speech sound disorders may be organic — resulting from a motor or sensory cause — or may be functional with no known cause. Voice disorders deal with physical problems that limit speech. The main categories of speech impediments include the following:

Fluency disorders occur when a patient has trouble with speech timing or rhythms. This can lead to hesitations, repetitions, or prolonged sounds. Fluency disorders include stuttering (repetition of sounds) or   (rapid or irregular rate of speech).

Resonance disorders are related to voice quality that is impacted by the shape of the nose, throat, and/or mouth. Examples of resonance disorders include hyponasality and cul-de-sac resonance.

Articulation disorders occur when a patient has difficulty producing speech sounds. These disorders may stem from physical or anatomical limitations such as muscular, neuromuscular, or skeletal support. Examples of articulation speech impairments include sound omissions, substitutions, and distortions.

Phonological disorders result in the misuse of certain speech sounds to form words. Conditions include fronting, stopping, and the omission of final consonants.

Voice disorders are the result of problems in the larynx that harm the quality or use of an individual’s voice. This can impact pitch, resonance, and loudness.

Impact of Speech Disorders

Some speech disorders have little impact on socialization and daily activities, but other conditions can make some tasks difficult for individuals. Following are a few of the impacts of speech impediments.

  • Poor communication — Children may be unable to participate in certain learning activities, such as answering questions or reading out loud, due to communication difficulties. Adults may avoid work or social activities such as giving speeches or attending parties.
  • Mental health and confidence — Speech disorders may cause children or adults to feel different from peers, leading to a lack of self-confidence and, potentially, self-isolation.

Resources on Speech Disorders

The following resources may help those who are seeking more information about speech impediments.

Health Information: Information and statistics on common voice and speech disorders from the NIDCD

Speech Disorders: Information on childhood speech disorders from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

Speech, Language, and Swallowing: Resources about speech and language development from the ASHA

Types of Speech Disorders

Children and adults can suffer from a variety of speech impairments that may have mild to severe impacts on their ability to communicate. The following 10 conditions are examples of specific types of speech disorders and voice disorders.

1. Stuttering

This condition is one of the most common speech disorders. Stuttering is the repetition of syllables or words, interruptions in speech, or prolonged use of a sound.

2. Apraxia

This organic speech disorder is a result of damage to the neural pathways that connect the brain to speech-producing muscles. This results in a person knowing what they want to say, but being unable to speak the words.

3. Aphasia

This consists of the lost ability to speak, understand, or write languages. It is common in stroke, brain tumor, or traumatic brain injury patients.

4. Dysarthria

This condition is an organic speech sound disorder that involves difficulty expressing certain noises. This may involve slurring, or poor pronunciation, and rhythm differences related to nerve or brain disorders.

5. Lisping

The condition of lisping is the replacing of sounds in words, including “th” for “s.” Lisping is a functional speech impediment.

6. Hyponasality

This condition is a resonance disorder related to limited sound coming through the nose, causing a “stopped up” quality to speech.

7. Cul-de-sac resonance

This speech disorder is the result of blockage in the mouth, throat, or nose that results in quiet or muffled speech.

8. Orofacial myofunctional disorders

These conditions involve abnormal patterns of mouth and face movement. Conditions include tongue thrusting (fronting), where individuals push out their tongue while eating or talking.

9. Spasmodic Dysphonia

This condition is a voice disorder in which spasms in the vocal cords produce speech that is hoarse, strained, or jittery.

10. Other voice disorders

These conditions can include having a voice that sounds breathy, hoarse, or scratchy. Some disorders deal with vocal folds closing when they should open (paradoxical vocal fold movement) or the presence of polyps or nodules in the vocal folds.

Speech Disorders vs. Language Disorders

Speech disorders deal with difficulty in creating sounds due to articulation, fluency, phonology, and voice problems. These problems are typically related to physical, motor, sensory, neurological, or mental health issues.

Language disorders, on the other hand, occur when individuals have difficulty communicating the meaning of what they want to express. Common in children, these disorders may result in low vocabulary and difficulty saying complex sentences. Such a disorder may reflect difficulty in comprehending school lessons or adopting new words, or it may be related to a learning disability such as dyslexia. Language disorders can also involve receptive language difficulties, where individuals have trouble understanding the messages that others are trying to convey. 

About 5% of children in the U.S. have a speech disorder such as stuttering, apraxia, dysarthria, and lisping.

Resources on Types of Speech Disorders

The following resources may provide additional information on the types of speech impediments.

Common Speech Disorders: A guide to the most common speech impediments from GreatSpeech

Speech impairment in adults: Descriptions of common adult speech issues from MedlinePlus

Stuttering Facts: Information on stuttering indications and causes from the Stuttering Foundation

Speech Impediment Causes

Speech disorders may be caused by a variety of factors related to physical features, neurological ailments, or mental health conditions. In children, they may be related to developmental issues or unknown causes and may go away naturally over time.

Physical and neurological issues. Speech impediment causes related to physical characteristics may include:

  • Brain damage
  • Nervous system damage
  • Respiratory system damage
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Cancerous or noncancerous growths
  • Muscle and bone problems such as dental issues or cleft palate

Mental health issues. Some speech disorders are related to clinical conditions such as:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Dementia
  • Down syndrome or other genetic syndromes
  • Cerebral palsy or other neurological disorders
  • Multiple sclerosis

Some speech impairments may also have to do with family history, such as when parents or siblings have experienced language or speech difficulties. Other causes may include premature birth, pregnancy complications, or delivery difficulties. Voice overuse and chronic coughs can also cause speech issues.

How to Fix a Speech Impediment

The most common way that speech disorders are treated involves seeking professional help. If patients and families feel that symptoms warrant therapy, health professionals can help determine how to fix a speech impediment. Early treatment is best to curb speech disorders, but impairments can also be treated later in life.

Professionals in the speech therapy field include speech-language pathologists (SLPs). These practitioners assess, diagnose, and treat communication disorders including speech, language, social, cognitive, and swallowing disorders in both adults and children. They may have an SLP assistant to help with diagnostic and therapy activities.

Speech-language pathologists may also share a practice with audiologists and audiology assistants. Audiologists help identify and treat hearing, balance, and other auditory disorders.

How Are Speech Disorders Diagnosed?

Typically, a pediatrician, social worker, teacher, or other concerned party will recognize the symptoms of a speech disorder in children. These individuals, who frequently deal with speech and language conditions and are more familiar with symptoms, will recommend that parents have their child evaluated. Adults who struggle with speech problems may seek direct guidance from a physician or speech evaluation specialist.

When evaluating a patient for a potential speech impediment, a physician will:

  • Conduct hearing and vision tests
  • Evaluate patient records
  • Observe patient symptoms

A speech-language pathologist will conduct an initial screening that might include:

  • An evaluation of speech sounds in words and sentences
  • An evaluation of oral motor function
  • An orofacial examination
  • An assessment of language comprehension

The initial screening might result in no action if speech symptoms are determined to be developmentally appropriate. If a disorder is suspected, the initial screening might result in a referral for a comprehensive speech sound assessment, comprehensive language assessment, audiology evaluation, or other medical services.

Initial assessments and more in-depth screenings might occur in a private speech therapy practice, rehabilitation center, school, childcare program, or early intervention center. For older adults, skilled nursing centers and nursing homes may assess patients for speech, hearing, and language disorders.

How Are Speech Impediments Treated?

Once an evaluation determines precisely what type of speech sound disorder is present, patients can begin treatment. Speech-language pathologists use a combination of therapy, exercise, and assistive devices to treat speech disorders.

Speech therapy might focus on motor production (articulation) or linguistic (phonological or language-based) elements of speech, according to ASHA. There are various types of speech therapy available to patients.

Contextual Utilization  — This therapeutic approach teaches methods for producing sounds consistently in different syllable-based contexts, such as phonemic or phonetic contexts. These methods are helpful for patients who produce sounds inconsistently.

Phonological Contrast — This approach focuses on improving speech through emphasis of phonemic contrasts that serve to differentiate words. Examples might include minimal opposition words (pot vs. spot) or maximal oppositions (mall vs. call). These therapy methods can help patients who use phonological error patterns.

Distinctive Feature — In this category of therapy, SLPs focus on elements that are missing in speech, such as articulation or nasality. This helps patients who substitute sounds by teaching them to distinguish target sounds from substituted sounds.

Core Vocabulary — This therapeutic approach involves practicing whole words that are commonly used in a specific patient’s communications. It is effective for patients with inconsistent sound production.

Metaphon — In this type of therapy, patients are taught to identify phonological language structures. The technique focuses on contrasting sound elements, such as loud vs. quiet, and helps patients with unintelligible speech issues.

Oral-Motor — This approach uses non-speech exercises to supplement sound therapies. This helps patients gain oral-motor strength and control to improve articulation.

Other methods professionals may use to help fix speech impediments include relaxation, breathing, muscle strengthening, and voice exercises. They may also recommend assistive devices, which may include:

  • Assistive listening devices
    • Radio transmission systems
    • Personal amplifiers
  • Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices
    • Picture boards
    • Touch screens
    • Keyboards
    • Text displays
    • Speech-generating devices
  • Hearing aids
  • Cochlear implants

Resources for Professionals on How to Fix a Speech Impediment

The following resources provide information for speech therapists and other health professionals.

Assistive Devices: Information on hearing and speech aids from the NIDCD

Information for Audiologists: Publications, news, and practice aids for audiologists from ASHA

Information for Speech-Language Pathologists: Publications, news, and practice aids for SLPs from ASHA

Speech Disorder Tips for Families

For parents who are concerned that their child might have a speech disorder — or who want to prevent the development of a disorder — there are a number of activities that can help. The following are tasks that parents can engage in on a regular basis to develop literacy and speech skills.

  1. Introducing new vocabulary words
  2. Reading picture and story books with various sounds and patterns
  3. Talking to children about objects and events
  4. Answering children’s questions during routine activities
  5. Encouraging drawing and scribbling
  6. Pointing to words while reading books
  7. Pointing out words and sentences in objects and signs

Parents can take the following steps to make sure that potential speech impediments are identified early on.

  1. Discussing concerns with physicians
  2. Asking for hearing, vision, and speech screenings from doctors
  3. Requesting special education assessments from school officials
  4. Requesting a referral to a speech-language pathologist, audiologist, or other specialist

When a child is engaged in speech therapy, speech-language pathologists will typically establish collaborative relationships with families, sharing information and encouraging parents to participate in therapy decisions and practices.

SLPs will work with patients and their families to set goals for therapy outcomes. In addition to therapy sessions, they may develop activities and exercises for families to work on at home. It is important that caregivers are encouraging and patient with children during therapy. 

Resources for Parents on How to Fix a Speech Impediment

The following resources provide additional information on treatment options for speech disorders.

Speech, Language, and Swallowing Disorders Groups: Listing of self-help groups from ASHA

ProFind: Search tool for finding certified SLPs and audiologists from ASHA

Baby’s Hearing and Communication Development Checklist: Listing of milestones that children should meet by certain ages from the NIDCD

Making a Difference in Speech Disorders

If identified during childhood, speech disorders can be corrected efficiently, giving children greater communication opportunities. If left untreated, speech impediments can cause a variety of problems in adulthood, and may be more difficult to diagnose and treat.

Parents, teachers, doctors, speech and language professionals, and other concerned parties all have unique responsibilities in recognizing and treating speech disorders. Through professional therapy, family engagement, positive encouragement and a strong support network, individuals with speech impediments can overcome their challenges and develop essential communication skills.

Additional Sources

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Speech Sound Disorders

Identify the Signs, Signs of Speech and Language Disorders

Intermountain Healthcare, Phonological Disorders

MedlinePlus, Speech disorders – children

National Institutes of Health, National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “Quick Statistics About Voice, Speech, Language”