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Speech Pathology: what is it good for?

Many people have ideas about what speech pathologists may be able to do, but it’s definitely not a widely understood profession like nursing or firefighting might be.  I hope that this post can highlight some of the range of skills and knowledge that speech pathologists have and the huge variety of people that they work with.  Once you’ve had a read, comment below about something that surprised you about the speech pathology profession.

“Speech Pathologist. Is that anything like a speech therapist?”

I’m sure that every person in my profession has been asked this question at least a dozen times.  Terminology can be confusing and can be part of the mystery surrounding what we do and how we do it.  Speech Pathologists are called different things in different parts of the world (even just the English speaking parts).

Speech Pathology is the official title of our profession in Australia, though we are still known by many people as speech therapists.  Essentially, the titles mean the same thing but the “pathologist” label is designed to convey the fact that we diagnose and treat, that we deal with what is outside of the range of normal.  Therapist is a more generic term that is often paired with the means that a therapist uses for their therapy (eg. Music therapist, art therapist, aromatherapist).

In the United States and elsewhere Speech Language Pathologist or SLP for short is the name for my kind.  I actually prefer this name as it is a little bit more descriptive of what we do.  It covers a little more ground and shows off a little more of our skills.

“He doesn’t talk, so why would he see a speech pathologist?”

This one has to be one of the most infuriating questions for me and reflects how poorly our role is understood.  Speech pathologists are tertiary educated professionals whose primary role is to help people communicate (Come to think of it, maybe “Communication therapist” would be a better name).  Communication can happen using words and sentences, signs, symbols, gestures, facial expression, body language, pictures, objects, devices or apps that speak out loud and typically a combination of several of these methods.

For a person who is non-verbal (can’t use spoken words to communicate their needs) for whatever reason, a speech pathologist may

  • help them learn to speak
  • help make their speech clearer for other people to understand or
  • help set up and implement a system of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).

AAC is the term used to describe ways of communication that either help support speech for some people or replace it entirely for others.  Here is a handout that talks about a range of different types of AAC.

 “She talks non-stop, so why would she see a speech pathologist?”

Talking and communicating are not always the same thing.  It is a shame that the ways that speech pathologists can support children and adults who can speak to communicate better are not more widely known.  Listening skills and conversation skills are also critical to communication and may be the main area a speech pathologist works on with a person.  If someone is indeed “talking non-stop” they may be directing their speaking at a person, but rather thinking out loud.  Or, the may not know how to take turns and exchange ideas in a conversation.  Speech pathologists can work on these skills.

For other people who use words to communicate, the speech pathologist’s role may be to help them put their words together to make sentences that others can understand, or to expand the range of their vocabulary.  Maybe a person can communicate well enough orally, but has limited reading or writing skills.  Speech pathologists also play a role in literacy development.

“What do you mean a speech pathologist is helping with his eating?”

This was the area of speech pathology that surprised me the most when I was studying to become a speech pathologist.  Swallowing and feeding is a significant, non-communication related area in which a speech pathologist may have specific input.  I think our involvement in this area has come about because the same body structures that are used for speaking are also used for eating and drinking, so our knowledge of anatomy and physiology can help people who have difficulty with the mechanical aspects of eating.

Some speech pathologists focus on helping young babies learn to breastfeed, or transition to eating solid food.  Others work with people who have an acquired brain injury to swallow their food and drink without choking or aspirating (having it go down into their lungs).  They can also be part of a team working with those who have very restricted diets to explore and successfully eat a wider range foods.

In short

Speech pathologists should maybe be called “speech language literacy alternative communication feeding listening conversation pathologists”. This title might help to describe more of the range of what we do.  Speech pathologists are trained in all aspects of communication development and interaction, as well as specific areas related to eating and swallowing. If you or a loved one are experiencing difficulty with one or more of these areas contact us today.