Who is a Speech-Language Therapist, and How Can They Help?

Jun 26, 2019

In This Article:

Inadequate communication skills can harm personal growth and overall quality of life. But to overcome such difficulties, expert knowledge in communication is required, and this is where the services of a Speech-Language Therapist (SLT) become essential. As a relatively new field of science that came into prominence recently, awareness about speech-language therapy remains vague. So, in this article, we will look at who an SLT is, and the ways they can help to improve individual communication skills.

An SLT’s tasks and duties may vary depending on the age and the level of communication of a client. Their main jobs involve diagnosing, assessing and treating adults and children with communication – understanding and using various forms of language – eating, drinking, and swallowing difficulties. Individuals with diagnoses such as Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome and Feotal Alcohol Syndrome also receive support from Speech-Language Therapists.

As a profession, speech-language therapy has had a long journey into the limelight. Before the American Academy of Speech Correction – later renamed as American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) – was established in 1926, speech-language therapy was a somewhat unknown field. Though it was and still is a branch of medicine that directly and significantly impacts personal wellbeing, it didn’t receive due recognition until the beginning of the Second World War when the number of returning soldiers with hearing impairments and brain injuries increased. This was just the start of the profession receiving the recognition it deserves! What came next, both as a means of catapulting SLT into the limelight and increasing the quality of impact it had on society, was a formalisation of the training pathway.

A professional in the speech-language therapy sector has a sound academic background. What’s more, an SLT’s skill-set also requires hours and hours of on-the-job training. The difficulty a client might be experiencing could vary from a stutter to an inability to understand what others say, to having unclear speech. Moreover, an SLT could treat issues arising from a medically sensitive condition related to psychology or even oro-motor physiology. For example, while a Therapist can treat people with Dyslexia or Language Processing Disorder, they could also be treating unintentional communicators. It is this complexity in the subject field that drives some SLTs to pursue their studies further to earn a master’s degree by the time they start practising as Therapists. Apart from high-level education, there are independent regulatory bodies that maintain the quality standard of the Therapists. SLTs working in New Zealand, for instance, need to be registered with the New Zealand Speech-Language Therapists’ Association (NZSTA).

What do Speech-Language Therapists do?

According to a UK-based survey, eight out of ten long-term unemployed individuals have communication difficulties. This is a clear indication of the impact language difficulties may have on achieving a fulfilling adult life. However, with professional help, most of these challenges can be either prevented or overcome.  

In the beginning, assessment and diagnosis lay the foundation of the treatment. Assessing a client’s neuro-developmental strengths and difficulties allow an SLT to diagnose issues and devise an effective management plan at home or in schools and early childcare centres. Then, according to the diagnosis, the types of treatment are determined, and the procedures will be delivered either directly or indirectly. Since it is essential to devise a suitable treatment plan, the SLT will consider several factors, including the client’s background and the extent of their disorder.

SLTs adhere to several fundamental principles before planning treatment for a client of any age. They:

  • Teach strategies to facilitate communication rather than teaching stand-alone behaviours.
  • Evaluate a client’s progress in terms of the goals set earlier and modify them as needed.
  • Provide individualised treatments that suit a client’s learning capacity, their style of learning, and the severity of the disorder.
  • Always tailor the treatment accordingly, one step further from the current level.


Direct and Indirect Treatment

Based on the treatment plan, the client may either get direct or indirect service. Direct treatment is when the client (either young or old) meets the SLT face to face. This usually involves activities and dialogue with the client and any caregivers/support networks. Often, after each therapy session, the client gets homework, and the supporting adults also receive a list of tasks that are recommended to do with the client at home. These encourage consolidation of the targets worked on in therapy.

By contrast, indirect therapy doesn’t provide any treatment towards the client in a face to face situation. Instead, the SLT will empower the people who the client regularly contacts, such as parents, teachers, assistants or carers, with skills to support the client’s speech and/or language skills. 

Indirect speech therapy is useful because the client will receive input in all their communicative environments. However it is still common for the SLT to perform direct therapy alongside to make the treatment more effective. 

What Can I Expect When I Take My Child to a Speech-Language Therapist?

 While there are various avenues to follow when concerned about communication difficulties, it is possible to self-refer directly to a Speech-Language Therapist. Often, an immediate family member of the client may notice the speech or language difficulty first. If they think that the issue has to do with language development, they don’t have to go through a GP or the hospital. Instead, SLTs can talk through your concerns and provide necessary recommendations. One of these recommendations may be to instigate a referral to an Audiologist, or the region’s Child Development Team (a branch of the Ministry of Health). If the presenting matter is solely based around communication, a Speech-Language Therapist is well equipped to support you and the client through the process for progress.

A therapy session with an SLT has very little in common with a GP’s appointment. Their diagnosis process usually doesn’t involve sophisticated equipment or physically invasive treatment. Instead, mutual understanding and clear communication between the Therapist and the client are the foundation for identifying the issue; they would do their utmost to create an encouraging learning environment for the client. For instance, the SLT may approach the diagnosis with a simple “Question and Answer” method that will put the client at ease. Also, in some cases, the SLT may wish to begin treatment only after conducting an additional analysis by observing a young client in a classroom environment. Input from the parents might be of utmost importance at this stage as well since the SLT wouldn’t have prior knowledge about the client or their background.

What Should an Adult Expect from a Speech-Language Therapist?

For an adult, the initial assessment is slightly different from that of a child. It is likely to be an open discussion between the client and the SLT, where he or she will ask general questions about the client’s background, such as:

  • When was the first time they noticed their language difficulties?
  • Did similar challenges existed among immediate family members?
  • How do persisting conditions impact their daily life?

Before diagnosing, SLTs will also look at various aspects of language function by asking standardised questions and showing pictures. Then, based on this information, the SLT may determine the nature of the disorder. After the diagnosis and throughout the treatment, the individual’s requirements will be prioritised and treated in the best order.

If the main concern lies around a swallowing difficulty, the client will be asked about their diet, medical history and the details of the problem. Subsequently, the SLT will check the reflexes and muscles around their mouth and throat to identify any abnormalities. Based on the findings, they may recommend specific dietary changes, suggest changing the texture of particular food or drink, and in some cases, will also prescribe exercises. This is where speech-language therapy gets its grounding in common-sense, with practical repetitive training often being at the core of rehabilitation.

Most of the time, both adults and children find it hard to define specific language difficulties. So, if you doubt that your loved one is communicating to the same level as another of their age or want to make sure their language development is up to the level it should be, you might want to refer to our resources section – a list of milestones is available that will guide you through. If you are still in doubt or would like further information, talk to one of our friendly Speech-Language Therapists at Vocalsaints to learn how we can help. 

The sooner the therapy starts, the better the results will be, and more comfortable the path will be to success socially, academically, and throughout life!