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Do you know the early warning signs of communication disorders?

Here's how parents can identify a potential communication disorder in your child from expert Patricia A. Prelock.

Would you know how to identify a potential communication disorder in your child?

If you're like many parents, the answer may be "no."

Communication disorders, which are characterized by difficulty speaking or hearing, are common in children. In fact, roughly 8-9 percent of young children suffer from a speech disorder, and hearing loss affects 2 in every 100 children. Autism and other developmental or medical conditions also may be distinguished in large part by trouble communicating.

Despite this, a recent national poll of speech-language pathologists and audiologists (the professionals who treat these disorders) found that speech and hearing disorders frequently go undetected for months or even years in children. Lack of public awareness was identified by 45 percent of those professionals as the leading barrier to early detection. A staggering 64 percent of professionals reported that parents of young children are unaware of the early warning signs of speech disorders. As the current president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and a speech-language pathologist, this is troubling.

Why is it so critical for parents to be attuned to early indicators? Unlike other conditions, early intervention can prevent or reverse a communication disorder. The consequences of communications disorders can be devastating, affecting academic success, social interactions, and almost all aspects of life in some way. Many children may endure bullying, and suffer life-long frustration and angst. With timely recognition and treatment, much of this may be avoided.

Exacerbating the lack of awareness about the signs is the hesitation or delay many parents have in taking action when they first notice symptoms. Some parents may feel their child might "outgrow" these difficulties. Others may have little difficulty understanding their child or what their child is trying to communicate and not recognize that the child is rarely understood by or communicating with others. We know that children who receive services prior to age three have better outcomes than those receiving services after age five, so parents shouldn't delay seeking an assessment if they suspect a problem.

To help the public recognize these disorders and encourage treatment, ASHA recently launched the "Identify the Signs" campaign. Through public service announcements, a central website (, and more, parents can familiarize themselves with the signs, learn about treatment options, and find a professional in their area. I would encourage all readers to visit the site, but will share some of the key warning signs below.

Early Warning Signs

While symptoms may vary based on the specific condition (stuttering vs. speech delay vs. hearing loss, for instance), there are some general signs parents should watch for. For speech and language disorders, these include:

  1. Does not interact socially (infancy and older)

  2. Does not follow or understand what you say (starting at 1 year)

  3. Says only a few sounds, words, or gestures (18 months to 2 years)

  4. Words are not easily understood (18 months to 2 years)

  5. Does not combine words (starting at 2 years)

  6. Struggles to say sounds or words (3 to 4 years)

For hearing problems, signs in children include:

  1. Lack of attention to sounds

  2. Does not follow simple directions

  3. Does not respond when their name is called

  4. Delays in speech and language development

  5. Pulls or scratches at their ears

  6. Difficulty achieving academically, especially in reading and math

  7. Socially isolated and unhappy in school

  8. Persistent ear discomfort after exposure to loud noise

Learn More, Get Help via, parents will see a variety of resources that we encourage them to use and share. These include a:

  1. Public service announcement

  2. List of warning signs

  3. Podcast on how to distinguish a child with a speech/language disorder from a "late bloomer"

  4. Searchable database of certified professionals

We hope that through this campaign, parents will be better equipped to recognize these disorders, and encouraged to take action if there is any question in their mind. It is always better to seek an assessment than look back and wonder whether more could have been done.

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