Speech-Language Pathologists (SLP): What Do They Treat?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 16, 2024
7 min read

A speech-language pathologist (SLP), 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 of all ages in clinics, schools, and hospitals. They can help if you or someone you love has a developmental disorder, neurological condition, or brain injury that affects your ability to communicate with other people. They also can help if you have trouble eating or drinking safely due to swallowing issues.

A speech-language pathologist does many things. Typically, they check how you're able to communicate or swallow. When you're having trouble communicating or swallowing, they will try to find the cause. They'll also develop a treatment plan just for you based on the trouble you're having and the reason for it. They'll work with you and provide therapy to help. They'll also keep track of how you're doing over time. Any treatment they offer is known as speech therapy.

SLPs provide a broad range of therapies because they treat communication and swallowing problems caused by 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 from the communication or swallowing problem
  • Providing a type of treatment called aural rehabilitation, which helps people with hearing loss

An SLP can help you understand other people better. They can also help other people understand you better by improving your ability to share your feelings through words, gestures, or other means. They can help you learn how to carry on a conversation, including taking turns or giving other people personal space.

SLPs can help you even if you have very limited or no ability to speak the way other people do. They can train you on how to use devices, such as electronic tablets or communication boards. In addition, they can help you learn to swallow safely with approaches that help you better control your swallowing muscles.

SLPs also can help you with:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Spelling
  • How your voice sounds
  • How loud you talk
  • Stuttering
  • Memory, attention, problem-solving, organization, and thinking
  • Sucking and chewing

Speech-language pathologists use different techniques and tools depending on what the underlying cause is, how old you are, and other factors. You may have different types of therapy including:

  • Articulation therapy. You'll work on articulating sounds and words more clearly. Your therapist may use games to make it fun.
  • Oral motor therapy. Your therapist will work on the muscles around your mouth with exercises to help with speaking or swallowing.
  • Language intervention therapy. This type of therapy can help when you have a speech delay or language disability.
  • VitalStim therapy. Your therapist may use electrical stimulation around your neck. This approach can help if you've had a stroke leading to problems with eating, swallowing, drinking, or speaking.
  • Lee Silverman speech therapy (LSVT). This approach can help with vocal control, volume, and facial expressions. Your therapist may use it if your issues aren't related to your speech ability.
  • Modeling techniques. Your therapist may repeat what you say back to you correctly or add in extra words. They'll offer plenty of praise and feedback to help with speech problems.

Speech pathologist vs. speech therapist

You might hear SLPs called speech pathologists or speech therapists. But they are the same thing. Either refers to a health care provider who helps with problems related to speech, communication, or swallowing.

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: When 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

Language disorders

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

  • Aphasia: Difficulty speaking or understanding others because of damage to the brain
  • Auditory processing disorder: When the brain has trouble understanding the meaning of sounds

Cognitive-communication disorders

Usually, any brain injury 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 disorders

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.

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 1-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.

You can find speech-language pathologists in many different places. Settings include:

  • Clinics
  • Assisted living facilities
  • Business or work settings
  • Military bases
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Schools
  • Long-term care or skilled nursing facilities

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.

Speech-language pathologists work in many different places to help people of all ages when they have problems related to communication, speech, or swallowing for any reason. If you or a loved one is having trouble in any of these areas, ask your doctor if they'd recommend you get speech therapy to help.

  • What happens during speech therapy?

Speech therapists treat many different problems that may be caused by many different conditions. They also use many different techniques and tools. What happens during your speech therapy session will depend on the problems you need help with. Ask your doctor or speech therapist what you can expect.

  • How long do you need speech therapy?

That depends. Some people may need speech therapy for a few weeks, while others may benefit for months or even years. It depends on what you need speech therapy for. It also can depend on how much time you put into practicing the exercises or other skills your speech therapist recommends.

  • How well does speech therapy work?

Speech therapists go through a lot of training and learn how to use methods that are based on evidence they work. One study of kids with a speech or language problem showed that 6 hours of speech and language therapy over 6 months helped. Another study suggests more variable outcomes after a stroke. How well speech therapy works for you will depend on the condition it's treating. It isn't a cure for any disorder, but it can help you with issues that affect your everyday life and ability to interact with people or eat. Ask your doctor or speech therapist how much they think it can help in your case.