Do you often ask your child, “Are you listening to me?” Do you wonder why it takes so long for your child to tell a story? Kids with speech and language disorders can have a hard time processing information or getting their words out. The same is true of some kids with attention issues. It’s good to know what attention issues and speech-language issues have in common and how they differ.
What are speech disorders?
Speech and language aren’t the same thing. Speech is what goes into making the sounds of spoken language. There are four elements that make up speech: articulation, phonology, voice and fluency.
- Articulation is making sounds. Until around age 5 or 6, it’s common for kids to leave out sounds (nana instead of banana), substitute sounds (Fursday instead of Thursday) or have trouble making certain sounds (lellow instead of yellow). If their inability to make those sounds continues, it can be a sign of an articulation problem.
- Phonology is how the sounds of language are put together to make words. Kids with phonological issues may consistently substitute sounds that are made in the throat for sounds made in the front of the mouth. For example, saying tick for kick and tookie for cookie, or dame for game and doat for goat. They may also drop a sound from blends, saying things like poon instead of spoon.
- Voice is the pitch, volume and quality of speech. Kids with voice issues may sound hoarse, nasal or breathy when they talk. They may talk too loudly or not loudly enough for the situation.
- Fluency refers to the flow of speech. Kids with fluency issues may stutter, stammer or pause in the “wrong” places when they speak.
What’s the connection between attention issues and speech?
Kids with attention issues like ADHD can have issues with speech. They’re more likely than other kids to start talking later than expected for their age.
Kids with ADHD are also at risk for issues with voice quality, such as hoarseness or trouble speaking at the right volume. This can be due to involuntary vocal tics (such as clearing the throat repeatedly, grunting or coughing) or because of “vocal cord abuse” (such as frequent screaming or yelling).
Attention issues can also make it hard for kids to organize their thoughts and slow down their speech. For some kids this means they say everything that comes to mind. For others it means their mouth can’t keep up with the pace of their thoughts. Both situations can cause kids to stammer or stutter as they try to get their thoughts out.
What are language disorders?
Speech is how we form the words we say. Language is how we put those words together to communicate. It’s also how we understand the words other people put together. Language involves vocabulary—being able to find the right words and know what they mean—and knowing the rules for using words in sentences.
Language also includes pragmatics or using and understanding language socially. It includes the ability to have conversations and to “read” other people’s facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Pragmatics also involve knowing how to change the type of language to fit your audience. For example, you know to use short sentences and small words with young children. You use a different tone of voice with teachers than you do with friends. It also includes:
- Interpreting the emotional meaning of words
- Taking turns in conversation
- Understanding puns, riddles, sarcasm and other non-literal uses of words
What’s the connection between ADHD and language issues?
ADHD and speech and language issues often go hand in hand. The symptoms can be similar. It can be hard to tell whether the main issue is a language disorder or an attention issue.
Kids with attention issues can have trouble with hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, inattention and distractibility. This can affect their language and communication in many ways. Examples include:
- Talking out of turn or at inappropriate times
- Interrupting other people when they’re talking
- “Tripping over” and having trouble finding words
- Speaking too loudly
- Losing track of what’s going on in conversation
- Having trouble filtering our background noise to pay attention
Kids with attention issues can also be distracted by their own thoughts. They may make unrelated comments or talk about things out of context.
If your child has ADHD, it’s likely he also struggles with some aspect of speech or language. To find strategies that will help him succeed, it’s a good idea to speak with his doctor or school about a comprehensive evaluation. It can help you learn whether the issues he’s having are related to attention issues, a speech-language disorder or a combination.