What is Speech Language Pathology?

Speech language pathology (SPL) is a critical area of study for both those interested in therapy and those who study human communication. Because it refers not simply to organic or functional difficulties, and touches upon a broad range of causal roots, those who specialize in SPL must consider many factors. In the article below, we’ll explore the deep and complex field of SPL, and offer clarity for students who may be interested in specializing or advancing their education.

Resource: Top 50 Master’s in Speech Language Pathology Degrees

Definitions, Roots, and Rationales

In order to gain a greater understanding of speech language pathology, we must first parse this extensive field into some simpler groups. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA), practitioners of this specialty work diagnose, assess, prevent, and treat disorders of the following types in both children and adults: language; speech; social usage; cognitive and communicative; and swallowing.

These disorders may have an organic basis, such as the autism spectrum disorders or they may be psychological and manifest as difficulties receiving or sending social messages via written and verbal languages. Another source of such disorders is trauma—either as a result of accident or in the wake of major surgery. Swallowing disorders can temporarily impact the quality of a patient’s recovery after major procedures, just as difficulty with processing language can occur in the wake of accidental head trauma or a stroke.

But SPL also treats difficulties that pose less well-defined bases, such as non-verbal social communication skills, ordering events in a narrative, and even turn-taking in a social scenario. They often provide support for individuals who have difficulty concentrating in a classroom or employment setting, helping them to actively listen and formulate questions. SPL therapists can also assist these individuals to improve their sense of social timing—when it may or may not be appropriate to respond, ask questions, or encourage other parties to share further information about a topic.

Everything Is Connected

While we might think that the task of SPL specialists is relatively straightforward, the truth is far more complex than one imagines. The human brain uses several different areas of the brain to process and produce complex, abstract language. The signals that govern spoken language are not necessarily the same for written grammars, which use another layer of abstract meaning. Similarly, the use of language in social contexts calls upon other areas of the brain, which may or may not be fully compliant based on the particular disorder, injury, or organic condition of the individual patient.

In our modern, literate world, these areas are interconnected. We instruct children to visualize when learning to read, creating recursive patterns and chemical pathways in the brain. But if an individual experiences difficulties, such as dyslexia, this can impact other, more social uses of language. Similarly, deaf culture privileges different facets of human non-verbal communication that are often overlooked by populations without such considerations. SPL therapists work to enhance the learning experiences of individuals with these difficulties or different criteria, to ensure that they receive the full benefit of their social and educational environments.

We’ve only brushed the surface of this fascinating field, in which therapists may work in conjunction with other care providers to assist individuals presenting with complex needs. Social disorders, speech impediments, written language difficulties, problems with sending or receiving the full social meaning of abstract language, hearing difficulties, autism spectrum disorders, organic trauma, and even short-term swallowing disorders for those who have undergone surgery or intense injuries are all part and parcel of the speech language pathology realm.