Understanding Speech Disorders

Speech disorders are defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as an impairment in the ability to send, receive, process and comprehend verbal, non-verbal and graphic symbol systems

The ability to communicate in the educational setting is essential for a child to access and succeed in school.   In order for disorders to be considered a disability, it must demonstrate an adverse effect on the child’s educational performance.

IDEA includes speech and language pathology as both a related services and as special education since these services may be required to assist a child with a disability.

Speech and language services are considered part of special education in that they are designed to meet the unique needs of the child at no cost to the parent.


  • The identification of children with speech and language impairments
  • The appraisal and diagnosis of speech and language impairments
  • Referrals for medical or other professionals needed in order for rehabilitation
  • Speech and language services for the prevention of communication disorders and rehabilitation of children with impairments
  • Counseling and guidance for parents, children and teachers regarding speech disorders.


IDEA identifies early intervention services for children ages 0-3 with communication or swallowing disorders and delays.   Part C of IDEA states that early intervention services are mandated and are designed to meet the developmental needs of an infant or toddler with a speech disorder in one or more of the following areas:

Physical, cognitive, communication, emotional or adaptive.

Speech and language milestones are used as guidelines for parents and practitioners.   If you feel your child has a communication disorder or delay, you should contact your physician for further evaluation and your school district or county regional center in order to determine if early intervention services are appropriate for your child. 


  • 0-5 months: Turns head towards sounds
  • 6-11 months: Babbling, tries to repeat sounds
  • 12-17 months: Answers simple questions non-verbally, gestures, points, and begins to label objects.
  • 18-23 months: Follows simple commands, says 10 words or more, and combines words.
  • 2-3 years: Says up to 40 words, understands spatial concepts, descriptive words, and uses pronouns and 2-3 word phrases.
  • 3-4 years: Uses some speech sounds though some may be distorted, groups objects and expresses feelings through words.
  • 4-5 years: Speech is mostly understandable, answers “Why” questions, describes how to do things.
  • 5 years: Engages in conversation, uses complex sentences, can understand a series of three directions, uses imagination to create stories.

There are many web sites out there for teachers and parents dedicated to helping individuals with communication difficulties. Virtual Speech Center is a unique site offering on line speech therapy for children and adults. Another called icommunicate is one that provides information to parents and teachers about how they can improve their child's speech and language disorder.

Another great site that specializes in speech therapy ideas, materials and activities is home-speech-home.  These are great resources for parents wanting to learn more information about speech disorders.


Speech disorders in children with autism spectrum disorders can vary greatly. Some children are unable to speak at all while others can talk about topics of interest in great detail.   Most autistic children have difficulty effectively using language including word and sentence meaning, intonation and rhythm.   They also can have a problem using pronouns.   The goal of speech therapy for a child with autism should be to improve their useful communication skills so that they can effectively express their needs and participate in educational programs. 


Approximately 20% of children receiving special education services have IEP’s with speech/language goals and services.  It is the second largest special education category serving children within the school setting.   The goal of speech and language services is to see a measurable change in the student’s ability to communicate so that the student can participate in all aspects of educational life.

School services should prevent, correct or alleviate problems with articulation, fluency (stuttering), voice and language, reduce communication and swallowing disabilities and lessen the handicap.

Speech and language services may take place in the regular education environment, special education classroom, a speech and language treatment room, resource room, the home or at a community facility.

IEP goals may involve physical strengthening exercises, practice and drilling, audio/visual aides and sign language. 

The safeguards and mandates of IDEA protect students with speech disorders receiving special education services. These include the IEP process, procedural safeguards including due process, informed parent consent, re-evaluations and transition IEP services.

  • Parents who feel their child has any type of speech disorder or delay should start the referral process either through the student study team or by making a direct request for a special education evaluation.
  • If your child is struggling with school, I hope you'll visit my section on study skills for tips and strategies on how to improve school performance.   Also, visit my new section called Special Education FAQ for more information on common topics. 
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