Speech Therapy: Vital to Opening a Child’s World

Cerebral Palsy Therapies, Patient Care

young black girl with cerebral palsy in speech therapy session with black female therapist

By Lee Vander Loop
CP Family Network Editor

Years ago, before the invention of augmentive communication devices, children who displayed an inability to communicate were assumed to suffer from severe developmental disabilities and treated as such.

Imagine the heartache and frustration of a child with sound cognitive abilities or mild to moderate learning disabilities trapped in their body as a result of their inability to communicate. Augmentive communication devices have opened doors and given new lives to many individuals, providing a means of speech communication for those who would otherwise have no means of expressing themselves and their needs. Thankfully, speech therapists and augmentive devices are common today and can help most any child communicate in some way with the world around him or her.

The Basics of Speech Therapy

Speech therapy is the treatment of communication disorders, regardless of the origin. Therapists that work in the field of communication disorders are known as speech therapists and speech-language pathologists. Therapy can consist of a series of exercises and drills to strengthen the muscles involved in speech and improve oral motor skills needed for speech as well as swallowing. Speech therapy may also include sign language and the use of picture symbols or augmented and alternative communication devices.

Many children with cerebral palsy experience some level of challenge with speech. Their challenges could be due to cognitive delays as in the case of mental retardation and learning disorders or may be the result of damage to the area of the brain that facilitates speech. The speech center of the brain is referred to as the Broca’s area and is located in the left side of the brain for right-handed and most left-handed people. Nerves from the Broca’s area lead to the neck and face and control movements of the tongue, lips, and jaw.

Children learn speech by parroting what they hear in their environment. Children with hearing disabilities also experience challenges with speech because they cannot clearly hear sounds they and those around them are making. Children with cerebral palsy and speech challenges also commonly suffer from feeding disorders. Therapy to strengthen speech muscles also greatly benefits eating and swallowing.

Issues Involving Specific Types of Diagnosis

With children diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy, muscle tightness (hypertonia) may cause the tongue to constantly push up against the roof of the mouth, or palate, making speech all but impossible. Children diagnosed with hypotonia (low muscle tone) likewise would experience challenges with speech since the muscles of the mouth and tongue work together to form sounds.

The tongue is the primary organ involved in speech. It is also the primary organ of taste, chewing and swallowing. In chewing, the tongue holds the food against the teeth; in swallowing, it moves the food back into the pharynx, and then into the esophagus when the pressure of the tongue closes the opening of the trachea or windpipe. It also acts, together with the lips, teeth, and hard palate, to form word sounds. Early intervention in this area is vital to a child’s development.

What to Expect From Your Child’s Therapy/Therapist

Communication — Your child’s physical or speech therapist should be communicating openly with you as to what they are doing, what muscles they are working with and why they are taking the approach they have chosen. In the case of oral motor and swallowing skills, your child’s therapist should take every precaution to minimize the risk of choking and aspirating.

You should also expect the therapist to communicate with your child. Most young children are anxious and fearful of strangers. The therapist should be working and communicating with your child to win your child’s trust and confidence. Regardless of whether your child is capable of comprehension or capable of communication, the therapist should be treating your child with respect, patience and compassion. If you meet a therapist that treats your child like an OBJECT and not a human being, FIND ANOTHER THERAPIST!

Teaching — Your child’s therapist is not only working with your child, but should also be teaching you so that you can be consistent in your child’s care and contribute to help your child achieve and maintain goals.

Questions to Ask:

  • Communication works both ways. You should be communicating any concerns and questions you have to the therapist. If necessary, keep a journal and note problems and challenges you see your child may be experiencing between therapy sessions.
  • Ask the therapist what you can do between therapy sessions to help your child maintain their progress.
  • Ask how often you should work with your child and the duration of each session.
  • If your child has been prescribed adaptive or augmentive equipment, inquire as to how often you should use the equipment and the duration of each session.

Compassion and Patience — You have the right to expect compassion and patience from your child’s therapist. If you feel a therapist is being overly aggressive and seems to be traumatizing your child… STOP THEM. Effective therapy should not be traumatizing. This is contradictive and will result in your child relating therapy to pain.

Accountability — Your child’s therapist should have written goals. You should be provided with the results of the first assessment and goals the therapist hopes to achieve in addressing issues and challenges your child may be experiencing. The therapist should do periodic assessments and provide you with goals for improvement and notify you of progress or regression on a regular basis.

Coordination — You have the right to expect your child’s therapist to work with your child’s educators in developing your child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) and to be an active member of your child’s IEP team. In the case of a private physical therapist not associated with your child’s school, he or she should be communicating with your child’s teachers and involved in the IEP process to make sure everyone is working toward the same goals.

The therapist should also be coordinating and communicating with your primary care doctor about any needed adaptive equipment or communication devices, and should keep the doctor informed of your child’s progress or problems. If the therapist feels your child would benefit from a specific communication device or piece of adaptive equipment, it is their responsibility to communicate the need to the physician and to follow-up in obtaining the device.

Continuity of Care — You have the right to demand continuity of care for your child. This means that the same therapist works with and follows your child throughout the therapy process. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but it should be the goal of any agency you work for. If your therapist belongs to a group or agency and they are sending a different therapist with each session, find another agency. This is not acceptable.


NINDS Asphasia
National Speech/Language Therapy Center
Kids Health Speech Therapy

Was Your Child's CP Preventable?