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Communication Disorders in Children

What are communication disorders in children?

A child with a communication disorder has trouble communicating with others. They may not understand or make the sounds of speech. The child may also struggle with word choice, word order, or sentence structure.

There are several types of these disorders. They are:

  • Mixed receptive-expressive language disorder. A child has developmental delays and problems understanding spoken language and speaking.
  • Expressive language disorder. A child has developmental delays and problems speaking.
  • Speech-sound disorders. A child has a hard time expressing words clearly past a certain age.
  • Childhood-onset fluency disorder. This is also known as stuttering. It starts in childhood and can last throughout life.
  • Social communication disorder. A child has trouble with verbal and nonverbal communication that is not caused by thinking problems.

What causes communication disorders in a child?

Communication disorders may be developmental. Or they can be caused by:

  • Physical problems, such as a problem in brain or muscle development
  • Exposure to poisons (toxins) during pregnancy, such as illegal drugs or lead
  • Genetic problems

Which children are at risk for communication disorders?

Boys tend to be diagnosed with these disorders more often than girls. Researchers don’t know why. Children with these conditions often have other mental health problems.

What are the symptoms of communication disorders in a child?

Each child may have different symptoms. But these are the most common symptoms in a young child:

  • Not speaking at all
  • Limited word choice for their age
  • Trouble grasping simple directions or naming objects

Most young children with these disorders are able to speak by the time they enter school. But they still have problems with communicating.

School-aged children often have problems understanding and making words. Teens may have more trouble understanding or expressing abstract ideas.

These symptoms may look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are communication disorders diagnosed in a child?

Most children with these disorders are referred to a speech-language pathologist. This is a speech expert who treats children who are having problems communicating. Your child may also see a child psychiatrist. That is often the case if the child has emotional or behavioral problems.

A full evaluation may involve:

  • Psychological testing of thinking abilities
  • Psychometric testing to check a child’s reasoning skills, reactions to different situations, and thinking. It does not test general knowledge.

How are communication disorders treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

A speech-language pathologist will work with your child to improve communication skills. Treatment is often a team effort. Parents, teachers, and mental health experts may also be involved. Treatment may include:

  • Individual or group support
  • Special classes

How can I help prevent communication disorders in my child?

Experts don’t know at this time how to prevent these disorders in children. But finding them early and taking action right away can help with your child’s development and school issues. They can improve the child’s quality of life.

How can I help my child live with a communication disorder?

You can do certain things to take care of your child with a communication disorder:

  • Keep all appointments with your child’s healthcare provider.
  • Don't "wait and see" if your child will outgrow the problem. Speech and language delays are treatable. The earlier the treatment, the better chance of success.
  • Don't assume you can't afford services. Services may be free through your state's early intervention program or school system.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about other providers who will be involved in your child’s care. Your child may get care from a team that may include experts like speech-language pathologists and counselors. Your child’s care team will depend on your child’s needs and the severity of the communication disorder.
  • If your child is school age, talk to the school about school-based, speech-language support services. Each school has a process to get services started. The school speech therapist or others in the school will help you follow this process.
  • Tell others about your child’s disorder. Work with your child’s healthcare provider and schools to develop a treatment plan.
  • Seek support from local community services. Being in touch with other parents who have a child with a communication disorder may be helpful.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call your child’s healthcare provider if your child has:

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
  • New symptoms that develop
  • Signs of anxiety, depression, or other behaviors that may relate to the communication disorder

Key points about communication disorders in children

  • A child with a communication disorder has trouble communicating with others.
  • The cause may be biological or environmental, such as being exposed to lead or other toxins.
  • Some common symptoms are not speaking at all and having trouble expressing words.
  • A speech-language pathologist often treats a communication disorder in a child.
  • Finding the problem early and taking action right away can help with your child’s development and school problems related to communication disorders.
  • Coordinating care with your healthcare providers and your child's school gives your child the broadest base of professional support.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are and when they should be reported.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s healthcare provider after office hours, and on weekends and holidays. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.