Speech disorders can be frustrating. Imagine watching your child struggle to speak or communicate with you. There are different reasons why your child may have delayed speech or reach certain milestones later than their peers. One of the reasons may be muscle weakness or what professionals call Dysarthria.
Many children may have trouble saying some sounds clearly, and you can find it hard to understand what they say. However, it is easy to misdiagnose the problem. That is why we will critically explain dysarthria and how you can identify it and help a child.
What is Dysarthria?
As a parent, you take all possible measures to ensure your child's safety. However, despite taking all safety measures, accidents can still occur, and your child may suffer a head injury that could result in one of the many speech disorders in children, like dysarthria.
Dysarthria is a type of language disorder categorized as a motor speech disorder. It arises when a child faces difficulties utilizing their oral motor muscles to generate speech. The disorder leads to weakened or improper movements of the muscles in the mouth and face and may also impact the respiratory system. The exact symptoms and severity of dysarthria depend on the extent of damage to the nervous system.
We use several muscles in our face, lips, tongue, throat, and respiratory system when we speak. Weakness in these muscles makes speech difficult. Dysarthria is a motor speech disorder that occurs due to weakened muscles resulting from brain damage. The disorder can range from mild to severe.
Dysarthria can co-occur with other speech and language difficulties. Apraxia, characterized by difficulty sending messages from the brain to the muscles to initiate movement, and aphasia, which involves difficulties understanding language and expressing thoughts, are typical examples.
Dysarthria results from impaired muscle control due to damage in the brain areas responsible for speech. Non-brain-related issues such as muscular and nerve disorders affecting the mouth and throat can also lead to dysarthria.
Typically, dysarthria presents as slurred speech, with variations in speech rhythm and voice quality based on the specific type of dysarthria. Although dysarthria is not a medical emergency, the sudden onset of dysarthria due to a stroke or brain injury warrants urgent medical attention.
While dysarthria cannot be cured or fully reversed, specific therapies can help improve communication and speaking abilities.
The Difference Between Language Disorders and Speech Disorders
Dysarthria is not a genuine language disorder, unlike language disorders such as Aphasia. Instead, it is caused by inadequate motor and sensory processes required for speech production. Dysarthria affects a child's ability to articulate words properly despite having normal cognitive abilities and an understanding of language. The disorder occurs due to impaired movement of the muscles involved in speech.
It is common to mistake language and speech disorders as interchangeable, but this is inaccurate. A language disorder refers to the misinterpretation and mismanagement of environmental stimulus signals.
It may impact a child's cognitive development, but not always associated with an intellectual disability. The inability to understand, learn, and articulate words are the primary characteristics of language disorders, which can extend to reading and writing abilities. Language disorders are not linked to any muscular or respiratory dysfunction.
On the other hand, speech disorders are motor-based and involve the improper management of neuro-muscular signals required for word articulation. Unlike language disorders, speech disorders do not imply cognitive under-development.
Speech disorders only affect the control of muscles used for speech production and do not affect intellectual capacity, senses, or the nervous system's functioning.
Causes of Dysarthria Disorder in Children
Dysarthria, similar to other language or speech disorders in children, can stem from several causes. Dysarthria in children can have pathological causes, such as cerebral tumors or amyotrophic sclerosis, which interfere with cerebral function. It can also be caused by cranial contusions or excessive medication use that affects the cerebral cortex or medulla oblongata.
Let us now talk about the specific causes. Some of them are:
1. Brain Damage or Injury
If your child falls and hits their head, there may be a case of TBI. The fall can affect the neural pathways that control speech production. These neural pathways connect the brain to the muscles involved in speaking, including the muscles in the face, lips, tongue, throat, and respiratory muscles.
When these neural pathways are damaged, the muscles may weaken, move improperly, or become spastic, making it difficult to produce clear speech.
The specific symptoms and severity of dysarthria will depend on the location and extent of the brain damage or injury. In some cases, the condition may be mild and only affect certain sounds or words; in others, it may be severe and make speech nearly impossible.
2. Muscular and Nerve Disorders
Muscular and nerve disorders can cause dysarthria by affecting the normal functioning of the muscles and nerves involved in speech production. For example, a muscular disorder such as muscular dystrophy can weaken the muscles of the tongue, lips, and face, making it difficult to move these muscles properly to produce clear speech.
Similarly, a nerve disorder such as Parkinson's can affect the nerves that control the mouth and throat muscles, leading to speech difficulties.
In both cases, the neural pathways responsible for the coordinated movements of the muscles involved in speaking are disrupted, resulting in dysarthria. The specific symptoms of dysarthria will depend on the location and severity of the muscular or nerve disorder.
3. Developmental Delays
Developmental delays can cause dysarthria by affecting the normal development of the muscles and nerves involved in speech production. During normal development, children learn to coordinate the movements of their lips, tongue, and other oral muscles to produce clear speech. A child with a developmental delay may have difficulty coordinating these muscles correctly, resulting in dysarthria.
For example, a child with a developmental delay may have weaker oral muscles or struggle with motor planning, making it difficult to produce clear speech. A child with a speech and language development delay may not receive good practice using their oral muscles to produce sounds and words, leading to dysarthria.
The severity and specific symptoms of dysarthria caused by developmental delays will depend on the underlying cause and the child's individual abilities and needs. Early intervention and therapy can help children with developmental delays improve their speech and language skills, including dysarthria.
To get an accurate diagnosis of dysarthria, we recommend you consult a pediatric neurologist or a specialist in child behavior.
What Dysarthria Means for Your Child
Children with dysarthria may have difficulty controlling the volume, pitch, and quality of their speech. This can cause slurred, slowed, or labored speech and problems with breath control. They may also have trouble articulating multisyllabic words and exhibit nasal or hoarse sounds. Dysarthria can affect saliva control, chewing, and swallowing.
Dysarthria can significantly impact a child's ability to communicate effectively. The child may have difficulty pronouncing words and expressing their thoughts clearly, leading to frustration and difficulty in social situations. The child may also have trouble understanding others, which can further impact their ability to communicate.
In addition to speech and language difficulties, dysarthria can affect a child's physical health. The child may have difficulty chewing and swallowing, leading to malnutrition and dehydration. They may also be at an increased risk of choking or aspirating food or liquid into their lungs.
Dysarthria can also affect a child's self-esteem and emotional well-being. Children with dysarthria may become socially isolated and avoid speaking to others due to frustration, embarrassment, and fear of ridicule. They may develop psychological disorders such as social anxiety over time without proper speech therapy and family support.
However, with appropriate treatment and support, children with dysarthria can make progress in their communication abilities and improve their overall quality of life.
Symptoms of Dysarthria Disorder in Children
The signs of dysarthria may vary from child to child. However, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association highlights the common symptoms or signs of dysarthria in children. It may be a sign of dysarthria if your child exhibits the following:
Slurred or mumbled speech that can be hard to understand.
The child can or would only speak slowly.
The child talks too fast.
Speaking too softly.
The child cannot move their tongue, lips, and jaw well.
The child sounds robotic or choppy.
The child sounds hoarse or breathy or like they have a stuffy nose or are talking out of their nose.
You must seek medical attention immediately if your child is experiencing difficulty using their muscles, especially to speak. A Speech-Language Pathologist can assess your child’s speech and language to determine whether they have dysarthria or another issue.
The SLP will evaluate your child’s ability to move their mouth, lips, tongue, and breathing. The professional will also assess your child’s speech in various contexts, including single words, sentences, and conversations. They will also assess your child’s ability to comprehend and communicate effectively.
Treating Dysarthria in Children
Treating dysarthria in children is based on rehabilitating the muscles affected by the underlying lesion or pathology. Therapy typically involves breathing exercises, phonetic training, and oral-facial exercises to improve muscle sensitivity and control.
Your healthcare provider will develop a treatment plan tailored to the severity of your symptoms. Speech therapy is beneficial for individuals with dysarthric speech to improve their communication skills. Speech-language pathologists can also collaborate with your family and loved ones to help them improve communication with you.
In speech therapy sessions, you can learn techniques such as:
Exercises to strengthen mouth muscles
Techniques to slow down speech
Strategies to speak louder, such as using more breath
Methods to articulate sounds clearly
Movements to chew and swallow safely
Various communication techniques, such as gestures or writing
In more severe cases, a communication device may be necessary. These devices may include a letterbox, a picture board, or a special computer with a keyboard and message display.
Since speech disorders in children can vary greatly, a customized treatment plan is necessary. An SLP will assess the child's symptoms and develop a treatment plan that may include strengthening oral motor muscles, improving muscle movement, improving breath support, correcting the rate of speech, and articulation practice.
Focusing on vocalizing consonants can be particularly beneficial for children with ataxic dysarthria. Social anxiety and other psychological disorders may develop over time without appropriate therapy and family support.
Living with Dysarthria Disorder in Children
The family and a child with dysarthria must work together to enhance communication. Here are some suggestions for both the child (as the speaker) and the parent or caregiver (as the listener).
Tips for the child:
Begin with a single word or short phrase before moving on to more complete sentences
Check with the listener(s) to make sure they understand what you are saying
Speak slowly and loudly, and take frequent pauses
Keep conversations shorter when you feel tired, as your speech may be harder to understand
If you feel frustrated, try using gestures or pointing to help get your message across, or take a break and try again later.
Younger children may need extra help remembering to use these strategies.
Tips for the listener:
Reduce distractions and background noise
Pay close attention to the child when they are speaking
Watch the child's mouth as they speak
Let the child know if you are having trouble understanding them
Repeat only the parts of the message you understood so the speaker does not have to repeat the whole message
If you still don't understand, ask yes/no questions or have the child write down their message for you
Get the Right Care For Your Child At Our RiteCare Centers
RiteCare is a program that provides speech and language services to children who have communication disorders such as dysarthria. RiteCare clinics are located throughout the United States and are staffed by licensed speech-language pathologists who specialize in diagnosing and treating communication disorders.
RiteCare can help a child with dysarthria by providing speech therapy tailored to their needs. The speech-language pathologist will work with the child to improve their speech clarity, breathing, and oral motor control through exercises and techniques that strengthen the muscles involved in speech production.
The RiteCare program can also provide support and education to parents and caregivers, helping them better understand their child's condition and how to support their communication development. Additionally, RiteCare may offer assistive technology and devices to help children with severe dysarthria communicate effectively.