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Having a child with a speech delay can be stressful and trying for parents. Sometimes, it can be a simple, unexplained delay that will resolve itself over time or with the help of a professional. Other times, the speech delay can be the sign of a more serious disorder.

Because different children develop speech in different ways and at different times, it’s often difficult for parents to determine if their child truly has a delay. That’s where speech language pathologists come into the picture.

Kathryn Thorson Gruhn, a speech language pathologist and author in private practice in North Carolina, says children are classified as having a speech delay if they are progressing through the proper development sequence but at a slower rate than other children.

There are a number of different disorders that fall under the umbrella of “speech delay.” First are the speech disorders, which can be further divided into articulation disorders, fluency disorders and voice disorders. Articulation disorders refer to trouble that children have making different sounds, while fluency disorders are also sometimes known as stuttering. If your child has trouble even making sounds to talk, it might be a voice disorder.

The other type of speech delay is a language disorder. With a language disorder, the problem has more to do with understanding the meaning and use of different words and phrases rather than the ability to say those words. “When a child has trouble understanding others, it is called a receptive language disorder,” says Sharon Willig, the associate director of clinical issues in speech language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). “When he or she has trouble sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings, it is called an expressive language disorder.”

How to Tell if a Speech Problem Is Serious

The best way to determine the true nature of your child’s speech delay is with the help of a speech language pathologist. They can run a number of tests to determine if your child has a basic speech delay that can be resolved easily or something more serious.

Diane Bahr, a speech language pathologist and author of Nobody Ever Told Me (or My Mother) That: Everything from Bottles and Breathing to Healthy Speech Development, says a common articulation test known as a phonological analysis will yield a lot of clues as to the true nature of the speech delay.

“If speech is mostly slurred and distorted-sounding, it may be a muscle function problem called childhood dysarthria,” she says. “I use a list of behavioral characteristics based on the speech language pathology literature to determine childhood apraxia of speech, known as a motor programming problem. Many children with serious speech problems have a combination of muscle function and motor programming difficulties.”

Resolving the Less Serious Speech Delays

If your child does not have a problem based on muscle function or motor programming difficulties, then it is typically less serious and can often be resolved by working closely with a speech pathologist. Often, this simply involves a lot of practice speaking.

“A language-based speech disorder or a mild speech delay can usually be resolved via typical speech treatment methods in a relatively short period of time,” says Bahr. “Typical speech treatment methods use verbal instruction for correct oral placement. This can be instructions such as, ‘Put your tongue tip on the bump behind your top, front teeth,’ or imitation of speech sounds such as, ‘Say the T sound.’ ”

The amount of time it will take for these mild speech delay problems to resolve varies greatly based on the individual child. “A child that has a few sound errors and is easily stimulated may only be in therapy for a few months,” says Gruhn. “If a child is nonverbal and has multiple handicaps, therapy could be long-term.”

Resolving the More Serious Speech Delays

If your child has Down Syndrome or autism, there’s a good chance that he might be at risk for having a more serious speech problem as well. “Children with Down syndrome and other congenital disorders (affecting muscle tone in the body) will likely have childhood dysarthria and childhood apraxia of speech,” says Bahr. “Children with autism also tend to have childhood apraxia of speech.”

Reference: Brain and Nerves section on Better Medicine

Did You Know?

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Experts estimate that as many as 25% of all children with autism may never develop verbal language skills.