Before becoming an SLP, I was a teacher. So when people asked me what I did for a living I had a very simple, straightforward answer. They sometimes would ask me what I taught and that was that. Everyone knows what a teacher does.
Now that I'm an SLP (almost), I find this question more complicated. I have found that I respond differently depending on who I am speaking with. In some cases, I can actually say that I am an SLP (assistant/grad student) and I know that the other person will know what I am talking about. This is usually the case if they know another SLP or have had experience with one. But I don't always use "SLP" as my answer. In most cases, I stick with "speech therapist."
Using the term "speech therapist" provides enough information that the person I am speaking to can infer what I do. Most people know what a therapist does. so attaching that to "speech" enables them to figure out that I probably help people with their speech. What they don't know is that it is so much more than they really think.
I think it's safe to say that most people think of working on /r/ and /s/ when they think of a speech therapist. "Oh, you help kids who can't say their sounds right." Yes, that is part of what we do. But that is only a part. There are so many things we do that the average person would never even guess. Here are just a few of the things SLPs do:
- Articulation - yes, we work on /r/ and /s/ and all the other sounds that people might need help with. But it's not just for kids. We also work with patients who have dysarthria (perhaps after a stroke) or apraxia of speech (this involves much more than just practicing a sound or two).
- Voice - someone might need voice therapy if they have had some kind of damage or disease with their vocal folds, cleft palate, stroke, traumatic brain damage, or a disease (like Parkinson's) that may affect their voice.
- Fluency (stuttering) - we might work with kids or adults in this area
- Language - with younger children we might work on vocabulary or sentence production. With older children we might work on language skills that will help them in the classroom. We also work with children who have not started talking at all, sometimes on using alternative modes of communication (such as a speech output device of some kind). We might also work with children with autism on social skills. This is also an area we might work on with a patient after a stroke or traumatic brain damage. This area involves a lot and is more than I can describe here. Anything related to vocabulary, grammar, sentence formation, and/or social use of language would fit here.
- Cognition - this area includes things like sequencing, attention, and memory that can affect a person's day-to-day functioning.
- Feeding/swallowing - this is one of the areas that very few people know we work with. Being able to swallow is something that we take for granted until we can't do it. SLPs can work with patients who are having trouble feeding/swallowing using a variety of techniques that they receive special training in.
One of the great things about this career is that it has a lot of variety. No two settings are the same and every day is different. It's not always easy to sum up what we do, and SLPs are really the only people who fully understand what the career is all about. We teach, inspire, motivate, encourage, support, counsel, and train. We make a difference.
The next time someone asks me what I do, I will probably run through responses in my head like I usually do. Then I will tell them that I am a speech-language pathologist, and I change lives.