What are speech disorders?

Speech is the process of producing specific sounds that convey meaning to the listener. A speech disorder refers to any condition that affects a person’s ability to produce sounds that create words.

Speech is one of the main ways that people communicate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas with others. The act of speaking requires the precise coordination of multiple parts of the body, including the head, neck, chest, and abdomen.

What is a speech disorder?

Speech disorders affect a person’s ability to form the sounds that allow them to communicate with other people. They are not the same as language disorders. Speech disorders prevent people from forming correct speech sounds, while language disorders affect a person’s ability to learn words or understand what others are saying to them. However, speech and language disorders can make it difficult for a person to express their thoughts and feelings to others.

The types

Speech disorders can affect people of all ages. Some types of speech disorders include stuttering, apraxia, and dysarthria. We discuss each of these types below:


Stuttering refers to a speech disorder that interrupts the flow of speech. People who stutter may experience the following types of disruption:

Repetitions occur when people involuntarily repeat sounds, vowels, or words.
Blocking occurs when people know what they want to say but have difficulty making the necessary speech sounds. Blocks can make someone feel like their words are stuck. Prolongations refer to the stretching or extraction of particular sounds or words.

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The symptoms of stuttering can vary depending on the situation. Stress, excitement, or frustration can make stuttering worse. Some people may also find that certain words or sounds can make a stutter more pronounced. Stuttering can cause physical and behavioral symptoms that occur at the same time. These may include:

  • Tension in the face and shoulders.
  • Fast blinking.
  • Trembling lips
  • Clenched fists.
  • Sudden movements of the head.

There are two main types of stuttering:

Developmental stuttering affects young children who are still learning speech and language skills. Genetic factors significantly increase a person’s likelihood of developing this type of stuttering. Neurogenic stuttering occurs when damage to the brain prevents proper coordination between the different regions of the brain that play a role in speech.


The brain controls every single action that people perform, including speech. Most of the brain’s involvement in speech is unconscious and automatic. When someone decides to speak, the brain sends signals to the different structures of the body that work together to produce speech. The brain instructs these structures how and when to move to make the appropriate sounds.

For example, these voice signals open or close the vocal cords, move the tongue and form the lips, and control the movement of air through the throat and mouth. Apraxia is a general term that refers to brain damage that affects a person’s motor skills and can affect any part of the body. Apraxia of speech, or verbal apraxia, specifically refers to impaired motor skills that affect an individual’s ability to form speech sounds correctly, even when they know what words they want to say.

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Dysarthria occurs when brain damage causes muscle weakness in a person’s face, lips, tongue, throat, or chest. Muscle weakness in these parts of the body can make speech difficult. People who have dysarthria may experience the following symptoms:

  • Talk confused.
  • Mumbling.
  • Talking too slow or too fast.
  • Speak softly.
  • Difficulty moving your mouth or tongue.

The symptoms

Symptoms of speech disorders vary widely depending on the cause and severity of the disorder. People can develop multiple speech disorders with different symptoms. People with one or more speech disorders may experience the following symptoms:

  • Repeat or prolong sounds.
  • Distorting sounds.
  • Add sounds or syllables to words.
  • Rearrange the syllables.
  • Have difficulty pronouncing words correctly.
  • Struggle to say the correct word or sound.
  • Speak with a hoarse voice.
  • Speak very softly.


Causes of speech disorders can include:

  • Brain damage due to a stroke or head injury.
  • Muscular weakness.
  • Damaged vocal cords.
  • A degenerative disease, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
  • Dementia.
  • Cancer affecting the mouth or throat.
  • Autism
  • Down’s Syndrome
  • Hearing loss
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Risk factors that can increase a person’s chance of developing a speech disorder include:

  • Being a man.
  • Born prematurely.
  • Have a low birth weight.
  • Having a family history of speech disorders.
  • Experiencing problems that affect the ears, nose, or throat.


A speech-language pathologist (known as SLP) is a healthcare professional who specializes in speech and language disorders. An SLP will evaluate a person for groups of symptoms that indicate a type of speech disorder. To make an accurate diagnosis, PFS must rule out other speech and language disorders and medical conditions.

An SLP will review a person’s medical and family history. They will also examine how a person moves their lips, jaw, and tongue and can inspect the muscles of the mouth and throat.

Other methods of evaluating speech disorders include:

  • Denver Joint Screening Exam. This test assesses the clarity of a person’s pronunciation.
  • Prosody-voice projection profile. SLPs use this test to examine multiple aspects of a person’s speech, including pitch, phrasing, speech patterns, and volume of speech.
  • Manual of dynamic evaluation of motor skills of speech (DEMSS). The DEMSS is a comprehensive guide to help SLPs diagnose speech disorders.


The type of treatment will typically depend on the severity of the speech disorder and its underlying cause.

Treatment options may include:

  • Speech therapy exercises that focus on developing familiarity with certain words or sounds.
  • Physical exercises that focus on strengthening the muscles that make speech sounds.


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