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Our ability to hear and understand those around us, as well as express our thoughts, feelings, and ideas can be impacted by a variety of disorders experienced from infancy into adulthood and old age. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) help people with communication disorders in a variety of ways. Articulation therapy focuses on shaping appropriate pronunciation of the sounds used to form words (e.g. getting rid of a lisp or saying “r” correctly). Stuttering is treated by teaching strategies to improve the fluency of speech, and voice therapy targets disorders of the vocal cords and other body parts that are needed to speak with a clear voice.
Comprehension of language can also be a focus of speech therapy, whether it be developmental, following placement of a cochlear implant to restore hearing, or as the result of a stroke. Although some patients receiving speech therapy services have the ability to communicate, some can have a difficult time using appropriate communication skills. These difficulties range from to playing their friends and forging relationships, due to issues related to autism, or successfully returning to a job, for example, after a traumatic brain injury. SLPs work to foster development of social communication skills and improve an individual’s ability to carry out tasks necessary for successful daily living.
Some people with communication disorders may not be able to use their own voice, gestures, facial expressions, or writing to express their ideas. SLPs work to find other ways to bring the power of communication to all, based on each person's unique situation. Some of these approaches include using a communication board with pictures of different toys a child can select from while playing, a device to restore voice after placement of a tracheostomy tube, a computer that can recognize eye movements for a person with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis’s (ALS) to allow them to tell a loved one their wants and needs, or an alternate means of voice production after having the voice box (larynx) surgically removed.
Difficulties with communication happen to everyone from time to time. It is important to remember that there are individuals in our communities who struggle to simply talk to family members on the phone, play with a friend, or place an order at a restaurant every day. Reducing background noise and distractions, using simple language with an age-appropriate tone of voice, allowing extra time to respond, repeating yourself as needed, and, most importantly, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can help establish a strong relationship and allow for a better communication experience.
At the University of Chicago Medicine, we take a specialized approach to serving patients with communication difficulties. Our speech-language pathologists work alongside audiologists, occupational and physical therapists, nurses, and physicians as part of a multidisciplinary team to provide optimal communication during critical periods, such as after a cochlear implant placement or following a stroke. In addition to communication, speech-language pathologists focus heavily on the diagnosis and treatment of swallowing difficulties (oropharyngeal dysphagia).
Effective communication enhances our ability to express our basic needs and desires, to create, play, work, and love, and it prevents isolation, misunderstandings, and confusion. During Better Hearing and Speech Month, we are all reminded to use the gift of communication and help those who are working hard towards developing their voice in this world.