Articulation Disorders in Children

Think your child may have an articulation disorder? Learn more about speech articulation disorders and how speech therapy for kids can help.

Struggling to understand your child when she tries to ask you for their sippy cup? Has your family grown frustrated trying to decipher your kid’s speech? It’s possible they have an articulation disorder.

“Speech production can be divided into disorders that affect either the form of speech sounds or the function of speech sounds,” explains Alisha Feldman, a speech pathologist at Kids in Motion, which has three locations in southeast Michigan. “Disorders that impact the form of speech sounds are known as articulation disorders.”

Identifying a speech articulation disorder

Articulation disorders may be caused by “structural abnormalities,” she adds, like cleft lip or palate. They may also be motor-based, falling under the diagnosis of dysarthria (“slurred” or “slushy” speech) and apraxia (sound substitutions).

Janice Pagano, speech pathologist and clinical director at Building Bridges Therapy Center in Plymouth, says an articulation disorder, “starts out as simple as a sound substitution” in some cases.

“Let’s say someone says ‘D’ for ‘G’ – and sometimes kids are just delayed and they just make a few sounds. (Or) they say ‘W’ instead of ‘R’,” adds Pagano.

Something called a phonological speech disorder will “impact the way speech sounds or phonemes function within language,” notes Feldman. Her example is this: “the child may replace sounds produced in the back of the mouth (‘K’ and ‘G’) with sounds produced in the front of the mouth (‘T’ and ‘D’). So ‘cup’ becomes ‘tup’ and ‘go’ becomes ‘do’.”

Another way this may manifest is in an “S” sound. The sound may be “stopped,” says Pagano, to sound like a “D” or a “T” – and the same thing may happen with other similar sounds.

At what age should parents consider this to be a concern? “In general, a child should be 50-70 percent intelligible by age 2, 80 percent intelligible by age 3, and 90 percent intelligible by age 4,” Feldman says. “This does not mean that the child is not making sound errors; it is merely an indication of how well he or she should be understood. Most children will master the majority of English phonemes by the age of 7 or 8.”

Speech therapy for kids

For kids with an articulation disorder, treatment by way of articulation therapy with a speech pathologist is the best route, Pagano says.

“A rule of thumb is if your child is hard to understand compared to others his or her age, then they probably should be evaluated,” Pagano says, “and if you’re the only one who understands your child as a parent, and the others don’t understand, that’s another sign.”

If there’s any frustration on behalf of the child because they’re struggling to communicate – and vice versa for the listener – it’s a good time to see a speech and language pathologist, Feldman adds.

And while there’s no specific age that you should start speech therapy if you notice an issue (Pagano has seen kids younger than 3 at Building Bridges), “the earlier you come, the better,” she says.

Once you get your child an appointment with a professional, therapists will thoroughly evaluate the child – and that includes evaluating hearing. “We would do something called auditory discrimination, so making sure the child can hear the words that they’re supposed to say or the sounds,” says Pagano.

As far as what parents can be doing at home, Pagano suggests “just follow the clinician’s lead.” They’ll have specifics they’re working on with your child.

“Following the assessment, a treatment plan including frequency, duration, goals, a home program and any further recommendations will be created in conjunction with the family,” adds Feldman.

This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated for 2017 

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