Speech and language therapy is the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of difficulties with speech, language, communication and swallowing.
Around 2.5 million people in the UK have speech, language or communication problems.
Speech and language therapists are health professionals who assess, diagnose and treat speech, language and communication problems in babies, children and adults. They can also help people who have swallowing problems and difficulty with eating and drinking.
Speech and language therapists work closely with parents, carers, teachers and health professionals including doctors, nurses, and occupational therapists. They work in a number of settings including nurseries, schools, homes, hospitals and local health clinics. Some speech and language therapists work independently (in private practice).
Speech and language therapy can help if you have problems swallowing, understanding language, forming words and sounds, using spoken language, or co-ordinating facial movements.
Speech and language therapy can help children and adults who have:
Speech and language therapists also work with adults who have communication or eating, drinking and/or swallowing difficulties following a stroke, head injury, and head, throat or neck cancer. They also work with adults who have Parkinson's disease and dementia.
All speech and language therapists must be registered with the Health Professionals Council (HPC) and can join the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
You can sometimes refer yourself to a speech and language therapy service. Alternatively health professionals (including GPs and nurses) can make referrals on your behalf.
If you suspect that your child is having difficulty communicating, it may help to discuss your concerns with your child’s health visitor, teacher or GP. They might be able to answer your questions or give you more information about local speech therapy services. Your child’s GP can refer him or her to a speech and language therapist. Alternatively, as a parent or carer you can usually refer him or her to a local speech and language therapy service.
You can pay for private speech and language therapy. You may have this individually or within a group. If you're interested in finding a private speech and language therapist in your area, contact The Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice (ASLTIP). See Resources for more information.
If you're in hospital, for example after a stroke or if you have had a laryngectomy for laryngeal cancer, your doctor will refer you to the speech and language therapy team at the hospital.
The treatment you have will be tailored to your individual needs. You may need to visit a speech and language therapist once a week for an agreed period of time. You can have one-to-one therapy or therapy in a group with other people. With your consent, your speech and language therapist may liaise with other health/education professionals that are involved in your treatment, as well as your family.
Your first appointment may take up to an hour. The aim of the appointment is to assess and decide if you have a speech and language difficulty. It will also give your speech and language therapist an idea of what treatment you may need.
Your speech and language therapist may carry out a standard assessment. This will involve one or more formal tests.
Alternatively, you may have already seen a speech and language therapist for an initial assessment while you were in hospital following a stroke, head injury or mouth, neck or head cancer. You may then continue to have speech and language therapy as an outpatient or with a therapist in your local area. Your therapist will have information about the cause of your communication problems and this will help him or her decide about your ongoing treatment.
If you have a problem with your voice, such as hoarseness, you may have already seen an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, or your speech and language therapist may refer you to make sure there is no underlying medical problem.
If your child needs an assessment, the speech and language therapist will play with your child and ask you questions to assess if he or she has speech, language or communication problems. The speech and language therapist may show your child a selection of toys or pictures and ask some set questions. Therapists may use formal or informal assessments or a mixture of both. With your permission they may also talk to your child's teacher, to help build a full picture of his or her speech, language and communication skills.
Once you have seen a speech and language therapist, he or she will give you advice to continue at home and will assess what ongoing support you need. Your therapist may give you a written report.
After you have been assessed, your speech and language therapist may recommend that you have speech and language therapy. This may involve helping you to control your breathing, articulate your voice or slow down your speech, for example, but it will be very specific to your individual needs. Your speech and language therapist will explain how your therapy will be delivered and how long it will last.
Your speech and language therapist may carry out further assessments at regular intervals during the course of therapy sessions to see how you’re progressing. You may be given a follow-up appointment after a few months to review your progress and see if you need more speech and language therapy.
If your child has had an assessment, the speech and language therapist may decide that therapy isn't necessary at that time and advise you with ways to help develop your child's speech and language at home. He or she may talk to other people involved with your child, for example teachers or school staff.
If the speech and language therapist does decide that your child needs therapy, he or she may give you some activities to carry out at home alongside therapy appointments. The speech and language therapist may refer your child for further tests if necessary, such as a hearing test. Your child may need extra help at school, for example, support in the classroom. Your speech and language therapist will talk to school staff about your child's difficulties and give them ideas to help your child in lessons. If your child has severe, persisting speech and language difficulties, he or she may need a higher level of support and might need to attend a resource class in a mainstream school or a special school.
The number of speech and language therapy sessions you will need will depend on the type and severity of the speech and language problem you have and the progress you make in therapy. Your speech and language therapist will discuss with you how many sessions you're likely to need.
Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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