What are speech and language disabilities?

‘Speech, language and communication disabilities’ is an umbrella term covering a range of difficulties with communication. Children/young people with speech, language and communication disabilities can hear, they can speak, and they may have high-level skills in many areas – apart from language. Theirs is a hidden disability – you can’t spot a child with speech, language and communication difficulties when you see them in the street. When you talk to them, you may notice something about them is different or unusual, but it won’t be obvious what the problem is.

Children/young people’s disabilities vary, and may affect:

Speech

They may have difficulties producing certain sounds or sequences of sounds in a word. Unlike other difficulties, these will probably be noticeable to other people.

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Michael Nash 2014 (Detail)

Talking

They may know what they want to say, but have difficulty putting this into words. Even in everyday conversations, they may struggle to find the right words and to combine these into sentences, and have particular problems when it comes to longer and more complex sentences needed to express their thoughts.  In some cases, they may have difficulty adjusting the volume or pitch of their voice appropriately, and may speak in stilted or unusual ways.

Understanding 

They may have difficulty recognising words or keeping track of words in longer or more complex sentences, so they lose out on key information and have difficulty remembering information.  They may lock into certain words and miss the nuances. They may have particular problems interpreting language in context so they take everything literally, ‘get the wrong end of the stick’, and miss the point of a joke.

Attending and listening

They may have difficulty concentrating on the spoken word, and may become overwhelmed by the amount of information.

Social communication

They may have difficulty keeping up with peers’ conversation and with ‘street talk’, have unusual ways of addressing peers and contributing to conversations. Their difficulties may extend to non-verbal communication, with problems understanding what others are feeling, and with initiating and responding appropriately in social interactions. As a consequence, they may seek out younger friends where there is likely to be more activity and less talking, or they may gravitate towards adults who will be more tolerant and ready to adjust their communication.

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The nature and range of difficulties vary between individuals, but the impacts are similar, affecting not only young people’s progress at school, but also their emotional and social wellbeing. Young people with speech, language and communication disabilities are likely to experience social isolation, frustration, and depression, without the support they need to share in activities they enjoy and have the friendships and social life they desire.

Professor Shula Chiat, City University London, 2014