Types of Communication Disorders Treated by SLPs

Industry Advice Healthcare

If you’re interested in becoming a speech-language pathologist, it’s important to understand what the role entails and what you can expect during a typical day. 

SLPs perform many tasks in their roles, and among the most crucial are the diagnosis and treatment of communication disorders. As an SLP, you will diagnose and treat a number of communication disorders in various patient populations. 

Below, we take a look at some of the most common types of communication disorders treated by speech-language pathologists to give you a better understanding of your career as an SLP might.


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What is a communication disorder?

A communication disorder is a developmental or acquired impairment to an individual’s speech, language, or hearing—and some individuals face deficits in more than one area. Communication disorders can make it mildly or profoundly difficult for someone to receive, send, or understand various forms of communication. Continue reading to learn more about the patients a speech-language pathologist (SLP) typically work with on the job.

Communication Disorders vs. Voice Disorders 

While communication disorders may include voice disorders, they are not synonymous. Communication disorders cover speech, language, and hearing disorders. Voice disorders fall under speech disorders but are in their own category and refer specifically to an individual’s voice quality when it is abnormal for their age or gender. Voice disorders can either be organic or nonorganic.

Organic voice disorders are physiological, typically resulting from laryngitis, paralyzed vocal cords, or another issue with the vocal cords. Nonorganic voice disorders, also known as functional voice disorders, occur when there are no abnormalities to one’s physical vocal structure, but they have ineffective use of their vocal system. Some voice disorders are vocal fatigue, muscle tension dysphonia, diplophonia, and ventricular phonation.

In rare instances, a voice disorder can be caused by psychological stressors. In this case, an SLP might recommend a patient to a psychologist or psychiatrist and may even work with them cross-functionally. There are other disorders that still impact one’s vocal capabilities that aren’t categorized as voice disorders, such as paradoxical vocal fold movement (PVFM), that an SLP will diagnose and treat with vocal and breathing exercises to improve laryngeal and respiratory control.

Types of Communication Disorders

Communication disorders are grouped into four main categories: speech disorders, language disorders, hearing disorders, and central auditory processing disorders.

1. Speech Disorders

A speech disorder causes an individual to have difficulty with creating or forming speech sounds. Speech disorders include articulation, fluency, and voice.

  • Articulation and phonological disorders are caused by structural changes in the muscles and bones used to make speech sounds, and as a result, produce atypical speech.
  • Fluency disorders are caused by genetic or neurophysiological disruptions in the flow of an individual’s dialogue that produce atypical rhythm in sounds, such as stuttering or cluttering.
  • Voice disorders are caused by abnormalities in pitch or resonance that don’t align with a person’s age or gender.

2. Language Disorders

A language disorder is defined as an impairment to an individual’s use or understanding of verbal, written, or other language systems. Different from speech disorders, language disorders refer to one’s expressive and receptive language. Someone with a language disorder may have challenges using or understanding language—or a combination of both.

A language disorder doesn’t have to do with speech or hearing but rather the form, content, or function of language.

  • The form of language refers to the sound, structure, and word combination within a language system. These are also referred to as phonology, morphology, and syntax.
  • The content of language or semantics refers to the meaning of words and phrases.
  • The function of language or pragmatics refers to how an individual uses the elements from phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics to communicate.

Most commonly, language disorders are developmental, but in other scenarios, they can be caused by brain injury or illness.

3. Hearing disorders

Hearing disorders prevent an individual from hearing at total capacity, limiting an individual’s ability to produce, comprehend, or maintain speech. Someone with a hearing disorder can have difficulty recognizing and understanding auditory material. Someone with a hearing disorder can be described as deaf or hard of hearing.   

Deaf individuals suffer from auditory nerve damage that causes severe hearing loss with little to no functional hearing. Deafness can limit oral communication, and therefore a deaf individual may receive sensory input from somewhere other than the auditory channel.  

Those who are hard of hearing will still receive sensory input from an auditory channel but may have difficulty hearing and, therefore, communicating. Someone hard of hearing could experience a hearing impairment that’s either fluctuating or permanent due to a disease or eardrum infection. These impairments can typically be treated so the person can regain partial hearing.

4. Central auditory processing disorders (CAPD)

Central auditory processing disorders are caused by deficits that impact how individuals convert the information in their central auditory nervous system (CANS). A central auditory processing disorder is diagnosed when an individual has difficulty processing audible signals. These challenges are not because of peripheral or intellectual impairments. CAPD are limitations in how an individual analyzes, stores, and receives information from audible signals.

The role of SLPs in treating communication disorders

SLPs are instrumental in improving their patients’ communication ability to help give them a better quality of life. In general, SLPs:

  • Diagnose communication disorders
  • Create treatment plans
  • Recommend and reevaluate strategies to tailor individualized treatment plans aligned with a patient’s strengths
  • Deliver therapy and ongoing support to those impacted by communication disorders

If you’re passionate about working with a particular type of disorder, you can look for and enroll in a program where faculty are engaged in research on a specific communication disorder. If you’re interested in working as a speech-language pathologist someday so that you can treat individuals with communication disorders, learn more about the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University.

Interested in becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist? Learn more about the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University.