What is the role of the speech pathologist in the assessment and treatment of children with special needs?

by Jane Buckman, Speech Pathologist, Fullarton House, Eastwood

The role of the speech pathologist is central to the assessment of the child’s communication skills. Difficulties with communication can include problems with speech, using and understanding spoken and written language, fluency, (stuttering), voice and auditory processing.

The speech pathologist may use a range of test batteries depending on the nature of the child’s problem. For children who present with learning difficulties, tests generally include evaluation of speech, auditory processing and the understanding and use of spoken language. The speech pathologist evaluates the relationship between any speech, auditory processing or spoken language problems with reading, spelling, written expression and general social and classroom performance. Assessment may also include classroom observations and questionnaires completed by parents and teachers.

A speech pathologist assists in the diagnosis and treatment of:

Speech Disorders, including:

  • Articulation problems; the way sounds are formed and strung together
  • Fluency problems; an interruption to the flow of speech, such as hesitations, repetitions (stuttering)
  • Voice problems; such as hoarse or nasal quality

Spoken Language Processing Disorders, including:

Language Expression

For example, the child may have trouble with:

  • Expressing ideas clearly as if the words are on the “tip of the tongue”
  • Ordering and combining words to form sentences
  • Vagueness in what is said making it difficult to understand the child
  • Learning new vocabulary
Language Comprehension

For example, the child may have difficulty:

  • Understanding questions
  • Following instructions
  • Maintaining conversation
  • "Remembering” what was said
  • Understanding and retaining story details and plots

Auditory Processing Disorder

Such as problems with:

  • Understanding spoken language in noisy environments
  • Auditory sequential memory affecting the ability to recall information in sequences (e.g. problems learning times tables)
  • "Mishearing”
  • Discriminating between similar speech sounds (e.g. i/e, s/z)

Language Based Reading/Spelling Difficulties such as:

  • Poor phonological awareness skills; including problems recognising rhyme, recognising that words have the same sound (e.g. ‘a’ in sat, man, or ‘tr’ in trick and tray), recognising that words can be broken into separate sounds (e.g. b-u-s), or that single sounds can be blended to make words; all of these skills are needed in the understanding that written symbols represent individual phonemes (sounds)
  • Reading accuracy problems; ‘sounding out’ words and blending sounds accurately and fluently
  • Reading comprehension problems; understanding written language; including plots, facts and inference; difficulties using general knowledge and verbal language vocabulary to help predict and fill in information
  • Spelling; this includes difficulties detecting, isolating and sequencing sounds in words and assigning letters
  • Learning new vocabulary

Written Expression Difficulties

Such as problems with:

  • Forming well developed sentences
  • Developing story and essay structure
  • Expressing ideas in the more complex genre of narrative language
  • Punctuation for meaning

Some speech pathologists have specialised experience in the diagnosis and treatment of the communication needs of children with:

  • Autism
  • Asperger Syndrome
  • Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder
  • Intellectual disability
  • Children requiring augmentative communication such as sign language and assistive technology

Follow Up

Once a child has been assessed and diagnosed, follow up treatment may involve:

  • Individual or small group therapy with a speech pathologist in a government based setting or private practice.
  • Home-based or school-based program designed and monitored by a speech pathologist.
  • Consultation with other professionals working with the child. This may include modification and accommodations within the classroom setting and curriculum.

It is helpful for the child to be reviewed regularly for a period of a year or more once treatment has ceased.


An initial assessment within the private sector may cost within the range of $200 - $400 with follow up sessions in the range of $80 - $120. Private speech pathology services can be claimed through “extras” cover in private health insurance. In some instances, the family can claim a Carers Payment through Centrelink and limited Medicare rebates.

Speech Pathology Australia (SPA) is the national peak body for the speech pathology profession in Australia, representing over 4,500 members.

SPA supports and regulates the ethical, clinical and professional standards of its members, as well as lobbying and advocating for all Australians living with communication and swallowing difficulties, how to find a speech pathologist in your area and the funding and supports available for specific clinical areas in which speech pathologists work, as well as information for referring professionals.

Click on the links below to see the roles of other specialists
Speech Pathologist
Class Teacher
Occupational Therapist
Educational Psychologist

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