Speech Therapy for Adults: A Helpful and Definitive Guide

Speech therapists are often associated with helping children. But certified speech-language pathologists also commonly work with adults to help with speech or language problems. Whether these issues originated in childhood, or developed as a result of an illness or injury in adulthood, many can be treated with speech therapy.

How many adults have a speech issue?

Speech and language disorders are common in adults. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, over 17.9 million people reported a voice problem in a recent year. This translates into 1 in 13 adults annually, or the equivalent of the Los Angeles and Seattle metropolitan areas combined.

However, even though speech issues among adults are common, only a relative minority seek treatment for their problem, even though speech therapy can often help. In fact, speech therapy can help with the prevention and rehabilitation of communication, language, speech, and voice disorders at any age.

Common speech and language conditions for adults

There are many speech and language disorders that can be treated with speech therapy.

Apraxia: This is a motor speech disorder that makes it difficult or impossible to control the muscles used to form words. This can happen even if the person has the desire to speak and the muscles are physically able to form words. Apraxia can happen in adults as the result of head injury, dementia, or stroke. This type of apraxia in adults is referred to as acquired apraxia of speech.

Dysarthria: When the muscles used for speech are weak, this can cause slurred, quiet, or slow speech that may be difficult for others to understand. Dysarthria can happen in adults as the result of head injury, muscular dystrophy, or a stroke.

Aphasia: Resulting from a brain injury or stroke affecting the language areas of the brain, aphasia hinders a person’s ability to use or understand words. It affects their ability to retrieve certain words and can affect their ability to speak, read, or write. It is estimated that 2 million adults in the U.S. have aphasia and that nearly 180,000 Americans acquire it every year. Lisps: The most common form of a lisp occurs when someone makes a “th” sound when trying to say an /s/ or /z/ sound. Lisps are caused by the incorrect placement of a person’s tongue inside their mouth during speech. Many adults have lisps that weren't properly treated in their younger years. It's never too late to receive speech therapy to improve a lisp.

Stuttering: Problems with fluency, or smoothness of speech, involve the involuntary repetition of syllables, sounds, or words. Stuttering affects people of all ages. Adults who stutter know what they would like to say, but have difficulty producing their speech fluently. Stuttering affects around 3 million Americans.

Voice disorders: Anything that interferes with your vocal cord movement can cause a voice disorder. Voice disorders affect pitch, volume, and tone. Some voice disorders include laryngitis, polyps, vocal cord paralysis, and spasmodic dysphonia. If you have a voice disorder, your voice may quiver, sound strained, be weak, or change in pitch.

Dementia: This is an overall term for diseases and conditions that result in a loss of cognitive functioning. Dementia can greatly interfere with a person’s daily life. Dementia not only affects a person’s memory, but their ability to use language. Speech therapy can help with this, as well as provide help for eating, drinking, and swallowing difficulties that many dementia patients possess. Currently 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease or a related form of dementia.

Laryngeal cancer: Cancer in the larynx, a part of the throat, and procedures meant to treat laryngeal cancer may affect a person’s ability to speak. Speech therapy can help patients recover from surgeries and learn to speak again. Roughly 12,000 Americans are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer every year.

Help with pronunciation and accent modification

Accents are a natural part of language. While every person has an accent, sometimes people want to change the way they speak and pronounce words because of difficulties being understood. This can lead to trouble at work, school, or in that person’s social life. Accent modification speech therapy can help by teaching you methods to change your sound and intonation in order to meet your speech goals.

People who seek accent modification are often:

  • People who speak English as a second language

  • People who want to communicate more effectively at work

Help with professional communication

Whether you'd like to improve your public speaking or presentation abilities, strengthen your interviewing skills, or simply communicate more effectively on the job, speech therapy can help adults grow in their career.

An experienced speech therapist can also help you improve your interpersonal skills to better communicate and form relationships with other people, whether they're coworkers, clients, customers, or peers.

Speech evaluations for adults

Speech therapy begins with a full assessment to determine the person's needs. This may involve standardized or informal tests, as well as a review of the person's medical history.

Depending on the presenting problem, the speech therapist may use a variety of activities to assess receptive language, expressive language, fluency, speech sounds, executive functioning, or social skills. Often, evaluations will include conversation so the therapist can make clinical observations. They may also interview family members to learn more about the person's communication challenges.

After the evaluation is complete, if treatment is needed, the speech therapist will develop a treatment plan based on their findings. They will also recommend the proper frequency of speech therapy sessions.

Speech therapy sessions for adults

How a speech therapy session is structured depends on the diagnosis, care plan, and individual person. But typical speech therapy sessions for adults may involve:

  • Language intervention activities: These are individualized exercises designed to improve language development. Speech therapists will model language using pictures, books, and objects to improve vocabulary and grammar.

  • Articulation therapy: Therapists determine what sounds the person is having difficulty with and provide individual exercises to teach those specific sounds and patterns.

  • Feeding and swallowing therapy: Speech therapists can provide oral exercises to strengthen the muscles of the mouth and improve the way a person swallows.

No matter how the session is set up, the speech therapist should provide exercises and activities for the person to practice at home between sessions. Regular practice is essential for reinforcing what you've learned, maintaining your progress, and graduating more quickly.

How long does speech therapy take for adults?

Speech therapists wish they could look into a crystal ball to give families a short answer to this question! The long answer is that each person's progress will depend on their individual needs, how much they practice between speech therapy sessions, and how consistently they attend sessions. 

How often should adults be seen by a speech therapist?

Most adults meet with their speech therapist one to two times per week. Depending on the therapy and severity of the condition, more intensive schedules are occasionally needed.

Why should adults consider online speech therapy?

1 Teletherapy is more affordable

In-person practices have to pay for a lot of expenses that aren’t directly related to patient care, such as facility costs, overhead, marketing, and support staff. With online speech therapy, these cost savings are passed down to the customers.

2 Flexible scheduling and convenience

Instead of spending time traveling to and from in-person therapy sessions, you can schedule and attend appointments from the comfort of your own home. You also have greater flexibility to schedule sessions on the dates that work best, and at the times you prefer, navigating around busy work and family schedules.

3 Just as effective as traditional therapy

When you work with a certified and licensed speech therapist, there’s no difference in quality between doing it online or in-person. The research backs that up. A landmark study from Kent State University showed that there was no significant difference in scores between students who participated in teletherapy versus on-site therapy.

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