Cute or Acute? Intervene Early for Speech Disorders


Speech and language development is an essential part of child development. The ability to communicate thoughts and ideas effectively as well as understand language enables children to learn and develop positive social relationships.

However, the statistics for speech and language disorders are staggering, with an estimated 5 to 10 percent of all children exhibiting some type of speech and/or language difficulty. Furthermore, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders has reached epidemic proportions — research supports 1 in 150 children identified with the disorder.

The earlier a child is identified, the better the outcome. Recent research has indicated that early intervention can actually change brain development by improving the function of structures and connections in the brain. This remarkable finding has provided the fuel to support the need for early intervention, which can drastically improve your child’s education and quality of life.

Speech Disorders
Speech is the ability to produce sounds from the earliest coos and babbling to the production of strings of sounds in words and sentences. The ability to produce speech is a complex and delicate balance of the interaction of many systems working in harmony. A breakdown in the ability to produce these sounds (phonemes) can take many shapes and forms.

From a mild articulation disorder, such as a lisp, to the more involved phonological disorder (sound substitution patterns such as deletion of final consonants), verbal apraxias (difficulty planning the motor movement for sounds) and dysarthrias (inability to produce sounds clearly due to weakness of the muscles in the mouth), these conditions often result in less effective communication.

Speech disorders reduce speech intelligibility, which negatively impacts communication. A lingering speech disorder can interfere with positive self-esteem, peer relationships and places children at high risk for a reading disability. Often parents become familiar with their child’s speech pattern or even sometimes find a particular pattern “cute,” and therefore do not always seek professional attention.

The danger in following this line of reasoning, especially with children with speech sound disorders, is the loss of valuable time to correct the speech difficulty. With services being provided in the preschool years, speech problems can frequently be corrected or at least minimized prior to enrollment in kindergarten.

However, it is also important for parents to realize that preschool children should not be expected to have “perfect” articulation, as some articulation errors are developmental or appropriate for the child’s age. Some sounds are motorically less complex and are more visual, such as the /b/, /p/ and /m/. These sounds are produced early in babbling and will be articulated correctly in first words. In contrast the /r/ and the /l/ sounds are more complex and may not be acquired well into school age.

Phonological Awareness
Phonological awareness is the ability to think about and manipulate sounds in words. It is a component of our phonological system or the sound system of our language. The awareness of sounds is an essential component of a child’s knowledge and development of print, thereby proving the underlying foundation for reading.

Recent research has clearly highlighted that phonological awareness skills are the single best predictor of reading ability in kindergarten. Consequently, children with poor phonological awareness skills are at high risk for developing a reading disability or dyslexia. The underlying cause of dyslexia is not a disturbance in the visual system, a common misperception, but is a direct result of phonological weakness. Rhyming, counting syllables and identifying beginning sounds in words are all examples of phonological awareness activities and should be encouraged throughout the preschool years. These activities will provide the skills your preschool child will need when entering kindergarten; it is not necessary or scientifically warranted to begin a reading program in preschool.

Language Disorders
Language development begins from birth with continued development throughout the preschool period and beyond. However, in some children the acquisition, the comprehension or expression of language does not follow the expected trajectory or development is delayed.

One of the most overt signs which signal parental concern is a child’s limited use of words. By age 2, children typically have a vocabulary of approximately 50 single words before they begin to combine these words into short phrases, e.g. “more cookie.” As language develops, children begin to use word endings (plurals, /ing/, past tense), and develop knowledge of grammar. For many children these skills can be an arduous task. Conversely, children may also experience difficulty with the processing and comprehension of language. What might seem like a child not paying attention when asked to do something may be the child’s inability to comprehend the instruction or question.

What You Can Do to Help Your Child
Parents do not need to rely on the predictions of others or to guess that their child will be just like a sibling or a friend, hoping they will eventually catch up in speech and language development. If parents are concerned about their child’s speech and language development, they should seek the advice of a speech-language pathologist and discuss their concerns with their pediatrician.

It is the responsibility of health-care providers working with children to provide the support that parents might need in obtaining an evaluation for their child. There are programs available for children which are funded through the IDEA, federal legislation which provides funding for children with special needs.

For children birth through 3 years of age in North Carolina there is the Child Development Services Agency and for children from 3 to 5 years parents can contact their local school to schedule a screening or evaluation. If parents do not want to use these state funded programs, a licensed speech-language pathologist in private practice is a viable option.

There are no logical reasons to wait to have your child evaluated. Common misperceptions often cited by parents include fear of a child being labeled, or that they can work on the speech or language, or that a child will outgrow the problem.

Unfortunately, none of these reasons provide the help that your child needs and delay denies your child the necessary skills that are needed to be successful in school.

Christine Somma is a licensed speech-language pathologist at Waxhaw Speech, Language and Learning and is completing her doctorate in special education. Contact her at or 704-243-6724.

Christine Somma is a licensed speech-language pathologist at Waxhaw Speech, Language and Learning.