Communication disorders are among the most common disabilities in the United States. Roughly 40 million Americans have difficulty speaking or hearing — many of them are children. In fact, speech disorders affect 8 to 9 percent of young children, and hearing loss affects two in every 100 children. Many other children are affected by additional medical or developmental disorders that hamper their ability to communicate.

These disorders are more serious than many parents realize. They may take academic, behavioral, emotional, and social tolls on a child. They can also impact the entire family by requiring established routines, straining relationships, and challenging interactions among all members of the household. Many of these struggles are unnecessary as communication disorders are treatable.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the public is aware of the signs of communication disorders and the importance of early detection according to a recent poll of speech-language pathologists and audiologists (the professionals who treat these disorders). To address this, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) recently launched the Identify the Signs campaign, which offers information and resources for identifying and getting help with communication disorders. Here are just some of the helpful tips available at

Types of Communications Disorders

A variety of conditions fall under the umbrella of “communication disorders.” Categories include:

Speech/Language Disorders

When a child has trouble understanding others (receptive language), or completely sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings (expressive language), then she has a language disorder. When a child is unable to correctly or fluently produce speech sounds, or has problems with her voice, then she has a speech disorder. Speech and language disorders include stuttering, selective mutism (inability to speak in certain situations), and childhood apraxia of speech (a motor speech disorder where the brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to speak).

Hearing Loss

Different types of hearing loss and degrees of severity exist. Hearing loss can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired. One common illness in children that involves inflammation in the middle ear (usually associated with fluid buildup) is called otitis media, and it can result in hearing loss. This hearing loss can be permanent. Otitis media is the most frequently diagnosed disease in infants and young children; 75 percent of young children will experience at least one episode of it by their third birthday. The more frequent the episodes, the more likely permanent hearing damage will occur.

Medical/Developmental Disorders

Autism is in large part characterized by problems with communication and social skills. Other medical or developmental conditions that may result in communication problems include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Identifying the Signs

Each individual communication disorder has unique characteristics. However, the following are some general signs parents should notice as indicators of a potential speech-language problem, as well as the ages when these behaviors are first expected.

  • Doesn’t smile or interact (birth-3 months)
  • Doesn’t babble (4 months-1 year
  • Makes only a few sounds or gestures (pointing) and says few words (12-18 months)
  • Doesn’t understand what you say (7 months-3 years)
  • Doesn’t put words together (18 months-3 years)
  • Speech is unclear (2-3 years)

Signs of hearing loss to look for include:

  • Lack of attention to sounds
  • Doesn’t follow simple directions
  • Doesn’t respond when you call your child’s name
  • Delays in speech and language development
  • Speech is unclear

What Parents Can Do

Many parents wait to act upon first noticing symptoms in their children. More than one-third of moms and dads (36 percent) will wait a year or longer to take action in the case of speech delay, and 31 percent of parents wait six months to one year for suspected hearing loss. Parents should never delay an assessment if they suspect a problem. Studies have shown that children who receive services prior to age 3 have better outcomes than those receiving services after age 5.

Among the resources at is a searchable list of certified providers by geographic area under the “Find a Professional” section of the website. Free services are also available to school-age children through public school systems. Contact the local public school district for information about early intervention programs.

Finally, share information about Identify the Signs with your family and friends. The more people know about communication disorders and get help for them, the better the outcomes.

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