Lisps are practically universal among small children who are learning to talk. In fact, they can be pretty darn cute. But when a lisp persists beyond a certain age, it’s time to consider whether speech therapy intervention is necessary.
Lisps usually last until about 4 years and 6 months, when they resolve on their own. Pay attention to your child’s peers and see whether your child’s speech stands out in this way. If your child is still talking with a lisp after age 4.5, it’s probably time to make an appointment for a speech therapy consultation. If the speech therapist recommends therapy, it’s best to start right away. The longer you wait, the harder the habit may be to fix.
What Exactly is a Lisp?
The term “lisp” is a lay term in reference to difficulty with the sounds S, SH and CH, but it mostly pertains to the S. It’s a type of functional speech sound disorder that frequently occurs in kids and can persist into adulthood.
There are four different kinds of lisps:
Interdental. Also referred to as a “front lisp,” and is the most common. With an interdental “s,” a word like “soup” is pronounced “thoop.” There’s also the interdental “z” where a word like “zoo” is pronounced “thoo.” Basically, the “th” sound replaces the “s” and/or “z” sounds.
Dentalized lisp. This isn’t a formal diagnosis, but it’s how speech therapists describe it because it explains how the child is making the sounds. It’s similar to the interdental lisp in its result, but the cause is that the child’s tongue is pushing against their front teeth and directing air forward (resulting in a muffled sound), as opposed to an interdental lisp in which the tongue itself pushes forward or protrudes between the front teeth.
Lateral lisps. This is when the tongue is basically in position for making the “l” sound when trying to make the “s” sound, so the sound comes out kind of “slushy.” These are not characteristic of normal speech-language development, so anyone with a lateral lisp should proceed with a speech therapy assessment. (In fairness, it may be tough to tell exactly which kind of lisp your child has, which is why we recommend a consultation even if you’re just on the fence about it.)
Palatal lisp. This is when the middle part of the tongue comes in contact with the far back soft palate to make what basically sounds like a “h”-“y” sound. This kind of lisp also is not typical in speech development, and should be treated by a speech therapist.
On its own, lisping probably won’t reduce others’ ability to understand someone. But there are many reasons why intervention is advisable.
Why Some Kids With Lisps Need Speech Therapy
As we mentioned before, palatal and lateral lisps aren’t typical in child development, so they should be assessed and treated without delay. The more common types of lisps though can often go untreated – but only to a point.
Let’s put it this way: Even if the lisp doesn’t impact others’ ability to understand your child, it can still be damaging to their social and emotional well-being as they grow up. Even if you think it’s still cute, there is the risk of a child being teased by his/her peers (an unfortunate reality).
Some kids may feel uncomfortable speaking in social situations, impeding their self-esteem. For an adult, it can be even worse. They may feel frustrated or embarrassed at work. Colleagues may unfortunately not take them as seriously, and it may even affect the opportunities they receive.