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Speech therapy: What is speech therapy?

Updated: August 29, 2023 · 7 Minute Read

Melanie Hsu, Ph.D.

Reviewed by:

Melanie Hsu, Ph.D.


  • Speech therapy supports your child’s language development and teaches them important communication skills.
  • Your child can benefit from speech therapy if they have trouble making certain sounds, can’t put two words together, or find it difficult to understand others.
  • If your child struggles with verbal speech or communication, speech therapy can help your child learn to use other modes of communication, also called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).
  • Speech therapy is almost always recommended for autistic children since many people with autism have difficulty with social communication.
  • Recent studies show that children who work with a speech therapist through telehealth (online) experience just as many benefits as in-person therapy.
  • If your child is under the age of 3, contact your state’s free early intervention program to see if you qualify for their services.

What is speech therapy?

Speech therapy, also called speech-language therapy, helps children improve their speech, language, and communication skills.


A speech therapist, also called a speech-language pathologist (SLP), will assess your child’s strengths and weaknesses and then work with you to develop a treatment plan. An SLP can help your child improve their understanding of language (receptive language), as well as their ability to communicate their thoughts and messages to others (expressive language). 


The speech therapist will also help support your child in developing verbal language skills, and if necessary, guide your family through the process of alternative communication methods, also called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). The therapist will provide you with training and coaching so that you can support your child’s speech and language development at home. 


A speech therapy session is usually 30-45 minutes long. Therapy can last a few months to a few years, depending on the individual’s needs. 


It’s common in speech therapy for the therapists to have children touch their throat or hold their hand open by their mouth so they can feel the sound they are making.


Does my child need speech therapy?

Speech therapy is almost always recommended for autistic children since many people with autism have difficulty with social communication. Even if a child is very verbal and says a lot of words, they might need to work on communication skills like: 

  • responding to questions
  • starting or ending conversation
  • changing conversation topics
  • using gestures like pointing
  • understanding other people's body language 


Speech therapy is a big focus in early intervention for autistic children and is usually the starting place for recently diagnosed kids. There is a critical period in the brain for language development and so, it's really important to teach language and communication skills as early as possible, especially if there are any delays in that area. Your child will learn effective ways to communicate which will help them grow into more independent and confident individuals.


It might be obvious when a child struggles with speaking —they are very quiet, say only a few words, or don't speak at all. Other signs are not as obvious. Here are 5 common early signs your child may need speech therapy.


Not babbling. Not babbling between 4-7 months and/or only making a few vowel sounds without any consonant sounds by 12 months can be an early sign of a language delay.


Trouble making certain sounds. By 1-2 years old, your child should be producing /p, b, m, h, w/ correctly in words most of the time. By 2-3 years old, your child should be producing /k, g, f, t, d, n/ correctly in words most of the time.


Speech problems can manifest as a speech impediment, and someone with a speech-sound disorder may have trouble pronouncing p, b, m, h, and w sounds in words.


Not gesturing in their first year. Children typically start making gestures, like pointing and waving, in their first year. If a child isn't demonstrating these gestures, known as functional communication, they could also have language issues.


Not understanding verbal requests after 12 months. It's common for parents to start giving their children simple directions early in life. Children should be able to understand most familiar and routine directions after the first year.


Not combining words by 2 years old. Most children say their first real word between 12-18 months and begin to combine words between 18-24 months (e.g. “mommy go”). Children who are not saying at least 50 words by 24 months may benefit from speech therapy.


What can I expect from a good speech therapist?

It’s important to find a high quality speech therapy team that will support your goals. Speech-language pathologists hold a master’s degree or higher and must maintain their license in the state in which they are practicing. Most SLPs also maintain certification through the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA). You might also work with a speech-language pathology assistant (SLPA) who is supervised by a licensed and certified SLP. 


Therapy can be held in small groups or individual settings. Speech therapists can provide services:

  1. In your home, which is common when working with very young children
  2. At school, through an Individual Education Program (IEP)
  3. At a private clinic
  4. Online, recent studies show telehealth for language and speech therapy is just as effective as working in person with children1 


Your speech therapy team might work with other medical professionals, including pediatricians, developmental behavioral pediatricians, and neurologists to rule out other possible medical conditions.


What are the benefits of speech therapy?

The goal of speech therapy is to help your child communicate effectively with other people across all environments. This may take the form of using gestures, simple signs, verbal speech, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).


Some other common things speech therapists can help with:

  • Nonverbal skills, such as signs or gestures
  • Forming speech in a clearer way
  • Communicating thoughts and feelings clearly
  • Understanding and responding to questions
  • Discerning facial expressions and their corresponding emotions
  • Noticing and understanding body language
  • Feeding and swallowing
  • Stuttering

Therapists can also help parents and caregivers learn strategies to help kids with autism navigate their home lives and set them up for success. 


Speech therapy can improve the social aspects of language, including coordinating verbal and non-verbal communication, sequencing language appropriately, and speaking in a way that helps listeners understand, like staying on topic. 


How effective is speech therapy?

Speech therapy is an Evidence-Based Practice (EBP).2 It combines clinical expertise, evidence from scientific literature, observations of your child, and information from you and your family to develop the treatment plan.3


Several studies have shown that speech therapy is highly effective for both children and adults and that it was more effective than no treatment.4


Next steps

If you have concerns regarding your child’s speech and language development, you should discuss these concerns with your primary care physician and request a referral for a speech and language evaluation. It is better to get your child evaluated rather than use the “wait and see” approach. Early intervention is critical and waiting can cause your child to miss out on the services they need. You can contact your insurance company to get a list of in-network providers or find the best speech therapists and in-network autism experts near you at Beaming Health


If your child is under the age of three years old, you can call your state’s free early intervention program to see if you qualify for their services (no doctor referral is required for early intervention services). Many public schools also offer free speech therapy for special needs children based on certain terms.

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