Healthcare is a vast field with countless opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are one such example of health professionals who help people of all ages improve their speech and communication skills.

If you aren’t familiar with this career, you may want to know: “What does a speech-language pathologist do? Is SLP the right occupation for me?”

Speech-language pathologists treat disorders that interfere with swallowing and communication. While it’s certainly a rewarding job, it’s important to know what the role entails before you pursue a career.

What is Speech-Language Pathology?

Speech-language pathology is the study and treatment of communication and swallowing disorders. Both children and adults can develop conditions that prevent them from articulating sounds, expressing or understanding language, improving fluency, or swallowing correctly. When swallowing becomes a challenge, patients are at risk of malnutrition, dehydration, asphyxiation, infections, and respiratory problems.

To put the impact of the field in context, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) more than three million people in the US struggle with stuttering, while five percent of children exhibit speech disorders by first grade. And every year, roughly 180,000 Americans develop aphasia—the inability to use or comprehend language.

The goal of speech-language pathology is to understand the mechanisms of speech and swallowing, and to use that understanding to improve the lives of patients.

What is a Speech-Language Pathologist?

Speech-language pathologists are therapists who evaluate, diagnose, and treat speech disorders that prevent healthy communication, fluency, and swallowing. They are also sometimes called speech-language therapists, as well as SLPs.

To most people, speech and language may seem like simple skills that develop naturally with few complications. However, speech actually involves the coordination of several complex actions, including the ability to hear, distinguish, process, and form sounds.

After learning these core skills, it also takes ongoing instruction to master reading, writing, fluency, and social communication. Speech-language pathologists work with children who have trouble developing these skills, as well as people with impaired skills due to cognitive-communication disorders, brain trauma, birth defects, or developmental disabilities.

Conditions Treated by SLPs

Speech-language pathologists treat many different conditions. These are often broken into the following groupings:

  • Motor speech disorders: Stuttering, apraxia, and dysarthria can cause an irregular flow of speech due to developmental, neurological, or motor muscle difficulties.
  • Cognitive-communication disorders: Genetic issues, tumors, or brain injuries can cause cognitive damage.
  • Voice disorders: Damage to vocal cords can result in irregular pitch, sounds, volume, or hoarseness.
  • Birth defects: Cleft palates and other physical defects can hinder development.
  • Stroke or dementia: Deteriorating brain health can cause loss of speech, disordered communication, and impaired oral functions.
  • Social communications: Autism spectrum disorder and other social development issues make it difficult to detect language cues.

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Where Do SLPs Work?

SLPs work in a variety of environments, such as hospitals, residential care facilities, nursing homes, rehabilitation clinics, schools, and private therapy practices. Educational settings are, by far, the most common employers of speech therapists.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 38 percent of SLPs work for state, local, or private educational facilities, while 22 percent practice in occupational, speech, physical, or auditory therapy offices.

What does a speech-language pathologist do?

Speech-language pathologist responsibilities vary depending on where they work, but typical tasks include assessing patient needs, diagnosing conditions, developing treatment plans, and monitoring progress. An SLP needs to be patient and compassionate, with the ability to listen well and interpret the behavior of people who struggle to communicate.

According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), SLPs in schools aim to identify disorders early, so they can implement preventive therapies and advise teachers and families on the best ways to support students. In medical settings, SLPs design exercises to help patients practice fluency, repair lost motor and cognitive functions, or find alternative methods of communication.

Be prepared to handle a fair amount of administrative work as well. Speech-language pathologists have to adhere to state, local, and federal compliance standards. Writing reports, doing research, and keeping detailed logs about treatment plans are crucial tasks that help to improve diagnosis and therapies.

Therapists who prefer to get involved in shaping curriculum may focus on collecting data, advocating for educational reform, and designing large-scale treatment programs at the organizational level.

A Rewarding Career

Like most therapy careers, the speech-language pathologist role revolves around providing the most beneficial experience to clients. SLPs must be attentive and detail-oriented professionals, always willing to grow and search for better methods of delivering treatment.

If you’re still interested in this profession, earning a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology could be a good option for you. Consider contacting a college admission counselor to find out what steps you should take to work in this field. A counselor can help you decide whether to pursue a graduate degree in speech-language pathology or explore related careers.

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