What is an Articulation Disorder?

An Articulation disorder is characterized by deviant speech production in the presence of some anatomical, motor or sensory impairment. That means if a child has unclear speech due to some physical motor apparent reason he is showing an articulation disorder.

The most common problem of the 5 – 10 % of all children who are estimated to have a communication disorder is some type of difficulty that affetcs their speech sound system. Some of these disorders are related to hearing impairment, or cleft palate or other neural developmental disorders .And there are also some disorders which have no physical basis. They may be a part of a broader linguistic difficulty. And there can be children who have already mastered speech sounds, but may acquire articulation disorders due to stroke, head injury or other neurological disorder.

Such difficulties can vary widely in severity, from speech that is very intelligible  to a tiny lisp in which a /th/ sound preceeds or follows the /s/ sound as in ‘sthoup or ‘yeths’.

There are 4 ways of this articulations:

  1. Omission of sounds (‘oup’ for soup)
  2. Substitution of sounds ( ‘thoup’ for ‘soup’)
  3. Distortion of sounds – substitution of a non-standard sound for a standard one ( a slushy unvoiced /l/ for /s/)
  4. Addition of sounds (‘isoup’ for ‘soup’,  /bilu/ for blue)

If you look closely you will find that your child doesn’t always randomly misarticulate. There will emerge a definitive regularity in his speech error. Which sound is substituted for another one depends on how similar the sounds are. Or how much oral movements that produce them are smiliar. For example, /z/ is usually substituted by /s/ and not a totally different sound like /l// Both /s/ and /z/ have very similar tongue movements.

Articulation errors also show regularity in another way: not all sounds are misarticulated equal number of times. The sounds which are difficult to utter are misarticulated the most. (sounds like /th/, /s/, /l/, /r/ )

The sibilant sounds – /s/, /z/ etc are quite difficult for children to master. Disorders of these sounds are called lisps. There are 5 types of lisps

  1. Frontal or interdental – characterized by substitution of /th/ for /s/
  2. Lateral – charatcerized by substitution of /l/ for /s/
  3. Occluded lisp – characterized by substitution of a /t/ sound for /s/
  4. Nasal lisp – Replacement of /s/ with a nasal snort
  5. Strident, piercing whistle in place of the sibilant sound.

What are the causes of articulation disorders?

Learning to produce different speech sounds is a mammoth task for a child.. From neural pathways to respiratory function, there are many processes involved in the articulating (pronouncing) a phoneme. It is difficult for the mentally impaired children to do this learning. Hearing losses ( even temporary ones) may hold back children from perceiving the required information to articulate clearly. Neurological distress, like in cerebral palsy, may lead to deficits in the motor control that make the mastery of complicated speech utterances. Emotional problems, isolation and also the lack of a caring parent can also interfere with the learning process.

Factors that cause articulation disorders can be summed as under

  1. Structural factors
    1. Organic deviations of the tongue and other oral structures.
    2. Short Frenum, also called Tongue Tie ( Ankyloglossia) – causes misarticulations of all speech sounds which require movement of the tongue against the palate. E.g – /s/, /l/, /r/ etc
    3. Malocclusion – abnormal bite of the teeth.  2 types seen – underbite or overbite. Misarticulations of /f/, /v/, /s/,/z/ etc
    4. Missing or jumbled teeth – Most common issue is the absent front incisors before the permanent teeth emerge. These deviances cause lisps or errors of the /s/, /z/ sounds.
    5. Cleft lip/palate- depending on the type and severity, misarticulations vary
    6. Tongue thrusting – It’s an orofacial muscular imbalance in which the tongue protrudes through the incisors while swallowing, speaking and when the tongue is at rest. Difficulties with sibilant sounds /s/, /z/ are seen.
  2. Audition
    1. Hearing impairment- Children with either permanent or temporary hearing loss have difficulty perceiving speech from their surroundings. Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, the speech is affected from a few misarticulations to a delayed language acquisition.
    2. Chronic infections of the ear like otitis media result in temporary hearing loss which is shown to hamper with the clarity of speech.
    3. Auditory perceptual difficulties. Children with auditory deficiencies do not perceive the errors they produce while speaking, hence they are not able to correct their speech.
    4. Poor Auditory Discrimination –Children with poor auditory discrimination have difficulties in recognizing the essential differences between the speech sounds.
    5. Poor Auditory memory – Reduced auditory memory also prolongs the process of mastery of the different speech sounds and interferes with correct speech sound production.
  3. Parental and Family Influences
    1. Parental Dialect – The production of consonants might be related to imitation of a parental dialect.
    2. Age – Children born to young parents might be neglected and unwanted. This emotional stress might mount up to interference with the speech sound production. On the other hand, old parents might place unnecessary demands on the child for high standard of speech pronunciation which also indirectly influence the way a child picks up language and speech.
    3. Parental models – Poor articulation by parents sets wrong models for the child to imitate. A parent with pronunciation errors in his speech gives wrong standards to the child.
    4. Home conditions – Speech development is not fostered by a critical, demanding environment or by one which promotes overdependence
  4. Developmental History
    1. Physical development – Almost any factor that delays physical development also might retard speech. Youngsters with sluggish tongues and palates have histories of slow physical development.
    2. Intelligence-There seems to be a correlation between low IQ scores and poor articulation skills of children. Children with Down syndrome have motor deficits that affect speech production.
    3. Illnesses – Certain severe illnesses lower the vitality of a child so much that he has no energy to learn the complex speech skills. Prolonged illness may result in parental attitudes of over concern and overprotection.
    4. Play – Children might imitate improper pronunciation styles from the children they play with.
    5. Emotional Problems – In some children, misarticulations may stem from emotional immaturity and aggressive behaviours.