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What Is a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP)?

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on November 24, 2020

A speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist, is a health professional who diagnoses and treats communication and swallowing problems. They work with both children and adults in clinics, schools, and hospitals.

What Does a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) Do?

A speech-language pathologist has many responsibilities. Typically, they evaluate a person’s communication or swallowing abilities, diagnose underlying problems, develop a personal treatment plan, provide therapy, and maintain records to track a person’s progress. Each treatment they offer is called a therapy.

SLPs provide a broad range of therapies because they treat so many different disorders. Their work may include:

  • helping people learn how to form sounds
  • teaching how to speak clearly and easily
  • using exercises to strengthen muscles used to speak or swallow
  • helping people increase the number of words they can say and/or understand
  • working with people to improve the way they put words together in sentences
  • providing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems for people who have severe language disorders
  • educating patients and their families about how to overcome challenges stemming from the communication or swallowing problem
  • providing a type of treatment called aural rehabilitation, that helps improve quality of life for people with hearing loss

Education and Training

Speech-language pathologists hold a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology. Along with classes in the assessment and treatment of communication and swallowing disorders, these programs include at least 375 hours of clinical experience. 

After graduation, a one-year clinical fellowship (or medical training period) is required, with a minimum of 1,260 hours of work under the supervision of a certified SLP. Then the candidate must pass an exam to become certified as a speech-language pathologist.

What Conditions Does a Speech-Language Pathologist Treat?

SLPs provide therapy for people with hearing loss, children with developmental delays, and people with communication and swallowing problems. They treat disorders such as:

Speech Disorders

These conditions make it difficult to produce sounds. Some examples include:

  • apraxia – the brain has trouble directing the movements of the muscles used to speak
  • articulation disorders – the inability to form certain sounds, such as “th” or “r”
  • stuttering – when the flow of speech is broken by pauses and repetition
  • resonance disorders – caused by an obstruction such as a cleft palate
  • dysarthria – weakness in the muscles used in speech, caused by brain injury

Continued

Language Disorders

These may be receptive (difficulty understanding language) or expressive (difficulty making oneself understood to others). Some examples are:

  • aphasia – difficulty speaking or understanding others because of damage to the brain
  • auditory processing disorder – the brain has trouble understanding the meaning of sounds

Cognitive-Communication Disorders

Usually the result of an injury to the brain that causes problems with memory, attention, organization, or reasoning, cognitive-communication disorders can make it difficult for a person to speak, listen, read, or write. Causes of cognitive-communication disorders include: traumatic brain injury, stroke, or dementia.

Social-Communication Disorders

These conditions make it hard to communicate socially: greeting, asking questions, taking part in conversations, and talking in ways that are appropriate for the situation. Difficulty with social communication can be caused by autism spectrum disorder or events such as a traumatic brain injury.

Swallowing D isorders

Sometimes called dysphagia, swallowing disorders are problems with eating and swallowing. Symptoms include coughing or choking during or after eating, food leaking from the mouth, taking much longer than normal to finish meals, weight loss, dehydration, and frequent pneumonia.

Reasons to See a Speech-Language Pathologist

If you or a loved one experience any of the following problems, it might be a good idea to seek out a speech-language pathologist.

Difficulty Communicating After an Injury or Illness

Speech therapy can help some people regain the ability to express wants and needs, build relationships, carry out daily tasks, and succeed in school or at work. 

Difficulty Eating After an Injury or Illness

Swallowing therapy can strengthen the muscles used in eating, help adults relearn swallowing coordination, and teach ways to reduce the risk of aspiration (accidentally inhaling food particles).

Feeding Issues in Infants and Children

Babies and toddlers with swallowing disorders may have a pattern of fussiness at mealtimes, avoiding certain food textures or temperatures (called sensory aversions), congestion or vomiting after eating, or gagging during meals. Feeding therapy can teach chewing, sipping, and swallowing, overcome sensory aversions, and help children learn to eat independently and enjoy mealtimes.

Delayed Speech Development

If you’re concerned that your child might not be speaking or understanding speech at a level appropriate for their age, talk with your child’s doctor. They can refer you to a speech-language pathologist if your child needs to be evaluated. If a child does have a speech or language disorder, getting therapy early can help.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: “Employment Settings for SLPs.”

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: “Speech-Language Pathologists.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Language and Speech Disorders in Children.”

Children’s Hospital of Orange County: “Feeding Therapy.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How to Know if Your Child Needs a Speech Evaluation.”

Insight: “TYPES OF SPEECH DISORDERS AND THERAPY OPTIONS.”

Loyola University: “How to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist.”

Northern Arizona University: “Cognitive Communication Disorders.”

University of Chicago Medicine: “How can a speech-language pathologist help?”

University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center: “Dysphagia and Swallowing Therapy.”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Speech-Language Pathologists.”

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