What are Communication Disorders?

If a person has a problem communicating orally, he or she could have one of many communication disorders. Communication disorders cover a huge range of speech and hearing impairments. Many can be successfully treated by speech-hearing therapists.

Speech and language are the primary means of communication among humans. We use speech to pitch, stress and inflect our words and phrases appropriately in order to convey meaning. When this ability is impaired, it causes frustration and anxiety for the person experiencing the impairment.

Two of the most common communication disorders are the lisp and the impairment that causes a person to slur the hard "r" sound. When these communication disorders are addressed by a speech therapist, they usually disappear completely, assuming they are not caused by a malformation of the speech-producing organs. Stuttering is another common communication disorder that can often be effectively treated, or at least improved.

Childhood apraxia is another communication disorder that can be effectively treated. Apraxia is best described as a lack of mouth coordination. That is, a child is unable to get his or her mouth to form sounds appropriately. A speech therapist can help treat this condition by assisting the child in practicing speech and speech exercises, along with other supportive therapies.


In children, diagnosing communication disorders is often the job of several specialists. The child's hearing is almost always tested first, in order to make certain he or she is hearing speech. Depending on the child's age, reading ability is often also tested. The speech-language pathologist also examines the child's mouth, jaw and tongue and has the child perform simple movements to assess muscle tone and coordination.

For some communication disorders, such as selective mutism, a psychiatrist may be necessary. Some children know how to speak, and speak well, but only at certain times, to certain people or to certain beloved toys like a doll or teddy bear. The speech-language pathologist may institute a program of behavioral treatment to reduce social anxiety, for instance, but he or she may also call in a child counselor or therapist to help determine whether the selective mutism is caused psychological trauma or disease.

Most communication disorders appear in childhood, but some can occur in adulthood, as well. Some stroke patients develop communication disorders, such as slurring words and aphasia. These conditions can also often be treated effectively by a speech-language pathologist.

Communication disorders caused by hearing loss and speech organ malformation are two completely different categories. Hearing loss communication disorders usually require a hearing specialist, who can determine whether assistive aids like hearing aids can help, in addition to the speech pathologist. For those with speech organ malformations, all of the above specialists will be required, as well as a physician or surgeon who specializes in these disorders.

For all communication disorders, early intervention is the key to the best outcome. If parents suspect that their child is not hearing, speaking or processing language properly, they should ask the child's pediatrician for a referral to a specialist for evaluation. There is no shame in this, and parents should not allow their desire for a "perfect" child to override the child's needs. The earlier the child begins therapy, the better the chances are for successful treatment.



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