What does a speech-language pathologist do?

Jul 5, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Has your child been referred for a speech evaluation? Find out what speech-language pathologists do for kids. You may be surprised at the variety of ways speech therapists help kids thrive at home and at school.

Girl with speech therapist

If all you know about speech therapy is related to speech impediments, you’re missing out on a variety of therapies that help kids succeed at home and school. We talked to a top speech-language pathologist to find out how speech therapy can help kids. Julie Liberman, M.A., CCC-SLP, works with kids in Texas and specializes in working with children on the autism spectrum.

We’ve got the info you need to become more familiar with speech-language pathology.

What is a speech-language pathologist?

Speech language pathology is the study of communication disorders. Communication involves more than just talking. It can involve social skills, body language, listening and comprehension. Speech-language therapists also address issues with swallowing and feeding. “Feeding issues are typically addressed in a hospital or medical setting,” says Liberman. “These issues can also include kids with extreme sensory or behavioral needs that affect eating.”

Do speech-language pathologists work specifically on speech?

According to Liberman, a speech-language pathologist may help kids work on issues like articulation, voice disorders such as hoarseness or nasally sounds and fluency such as stuttering. When speech itself isn’t the issue, a speech-language pathologist may focus on other forms of communication, including how children interact with other kids or adults. “We may work on following directions, answering questions, conversation skills and personal space,” says Liberman.

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What kinds of activities and therapies do speech-language pathologists use?

“Typically speech-language pathologists use books and games to address language skills,” Liberman says. “With articulation skills, it involves more drills and practice. Speech-language pathologists working on pragmatics will use social skills groups and role-playing situations.” Social skills groups allow children with similar disorders to work together, actively practicing pragmatic communication skills that may come more naturally to other children.

Do speech-language pathologists have specialties?

“It’s common that SLPs find areas they enjoy and specialize in,” Liberman says. “I know who to recommend if I have a stuttering referral, and I typically refer out for feeding and swallowing.” Speech-language pathologists may work in private practice, at rehabilitation facilities or hospitals, or even in schools. Liberman focuses on autism spectrum disorders. As part of her required continuing education each year, she often attends autism-focused conferences.

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How can parents get kids started with speech therapy?

Children ages 3 and under should start out with early intervention programs. Ask your pediatrician for referrals if you’re concerned with any aspects of your child’s development. According to Liberman, many school districts have programs for preschool ages and up, helping screen and refer. If your child’s school is not concerned about an issue and you are concerned, don’t hesitate to seek a referral. “If a child needs help and mommy intuition is one of the strongest feelings I've observed, then why wait?” Liberman says.

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