What Are Communication Disorders

Communication disorders can affect how a person receives, sends, processes, and understands concepts. They can also weaken speech and language skills, or impair the ability to hear and understand messages. There are many types of communication disorders.

Communication disorders are grouped in several ways. Expressive-language disorders make speaking difficult. Mixed receptive-expressive language disorders make both understanding language and speaking difficult.

Speech disorders affect your voice. They include:

  • articulation disorder: changing or substituting words so that messages are harder to understand
  • fluency disorder: speaking with an irregular rate or rhythm of speech
  • voice disorder: having an abnormal pitch, volume, or length of speech

Language disorders affect how you use speech or writing. They include:

  • language form disorders, which affect:
    • phonology (sounds that make up language systems)
    • morphology (structure and construction of words)
    • syntax (how sentences are formed)
    • language content disorders, which affect semantics (meanings of words and sentences)
    • language function disorders, which affect pragmatics (use of socially appropriate messages)

Hearing disorders impair the ability to use speech and/or language. A person with a hearing disorder can be described as deaf of hard of hearing. Deaf people cannot rely on hearing as a main source of communication. People who are hard of hearing can make only limited use of hearing when communicating.

Central processing disorders affect how a person analyzes and uses data in auditory signals.

In many cases, the causes of communication disorders are not known.

Communication disorders can be developmental or acquired conditions. Causes include:

  • abnormal brain development
  • exposure to substance abuse or toxins before birth
  • cleft lip or palate
  • genetic factors
  • traumatic brain injuries
  • neurological disorders
  • strokes
  • tumors in the area used for communication

Communication disorders are common in children. According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Diseases (NIDCD), 8 to 9 percent of young children have a speech sound disorder. This rate drops to 5 percent for children in the first grade (NIDCD).

Communication disorders also are common in adults. In the United States, about 7.5 million people have problems using their voices. In addition, between 6 and 8 million people suffer with some type of language condition (NIDCD).

Patients with brain injuries have a higher risk of getting these disorders. However, many conditions occur spontaneously. This can include the onset of aphasia, which is the inability to use or comprehend language. Up to 1 million people in the United States have this condition (NIDCD).

Symptoms depend on the type and cause of the disorder. They can include:

  • repetitive sounds
  • misuse of words
  • inability to communicate in an understandable way
  • inability to comprehend messages

An accurate diagnosis may require the input of several specialists. Family physicians, neurologists, and speech-language pathologists may administer tests. Common tests include:

  • a complete physical examination
  • psychometric testing of reasoning and thinking skills
  • speech and language tests
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • psychiatric evaluation

Most people with communication disorders benefit from speech-language therapy. Treatment depends on the type and severity of the disorder. Underlying causes, such as infections, can be treated first.

For children, it’s best to start treatment as early as possible. A speech-language pathologist can help patients build existing strengths. Treatment can involve remedial techniques to improve weak skills. Alternative forms of communication like sign language can also be learned.

Group therapy can allow patients to test their skills in a safe environment. Family participation is usually encouraged.

Several factors can limit how much change is possible, including the cause and degree of the disorder. For children, the combined support of parents, teachers, and speech and language professionals can be helpful. For adults, self-motivation can be important.

There are no specific ways to prevent communication disorders. Avoiding known risk factors, such as anything that may cause injury to the brain, may help, as can lowering your risk of stroke by living a healthy lifestyle.

Many communication disorders occur without known causes.

When communication disorders are suspected in children, they should be identified as soon as possible (CHOP).