Boy with tongue out, hero image for blog on 'what's a lisp' and how it affects speech.

What’s a Lisp and How Do You Treat It?

Reviewed by Dr. Joyce Richardson, PhD.

A lisp is a speech impediment characterized by difficulty pronouncing certain sounds, particularly the “s” and “z” sounds. It’s typically addressed through speech therapy and consistent practice.

A lisp can have a big impact on those affected, especially in social situations or professional settings.

Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone who struggles with their “s” and “z” sounds – it can make things a bit awkward, right?

Fortunately, with the right support and resources, individuals can overcome the challenges associated with a lisp and develop clearer and more confident speech.

We’re here to shed some light on this topic. From the different types of lisps to what causes them and how to treat them. Keep reading to learn more.

What Causes a Lisp?

A lisp can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Structural abnormalities
  • Muscle coordination issues
  • Habitual factors
Toddler sucking thumb, to reflect on discussion about what causes a lisp.

Sometimes it’s a case of anatomy. Structural abnormalities, such as a cleft palate, tooth misalignment, or a tongue tie can disrupt the normal airflow during speech production, leading to a lisp.

Then there’s muscle coordination. Think of it like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time – except it’s your tongue trying to hit the right spots to make those “s” and “z” sounds. Sometimes, things just don’t sync up like they’re supposed to which can be due to developmental delays or neurological conditions that affect muscle control.

Habitual factors, like prolonged use of pacifiers or thumb sucking during early childhood, can also affect the development of speech and lead to a lisp. In some cases, a lisp may be a learned behavior from hearing others speak with a lisp or imitating certain speech patterns. Breaking those habits can take some work, but it’s absolutely doable.

Identifying the root cause is the first step to tackling a lisp head-on. Whether it’s anatomy, muscle coordination, habits, or something else entirely, understanding the cause is key to finding the right treatment approach.

Impact of Lisps

Lisps can have a pretty big impact on someone’s life.

Communication Challenges

Having a lisp can make communication tricky and make it hard for individuals to express themselves clearly.

Picture trying to chat about “sunshine” but ending up with “thunthine” instead.

These communication hiccups can lead to misunderstandings and frustration, both for the person with the lisp and the ones they’re talking to.

Social and Emotional Effects

Lisps can also take a toll on confidence if you’re constantly worrying if your words will come out right or if you’ll trip over your tongue mid-sentence.

The embarrassment caused can lead to lower self-esteem and even a reluctance to speak up in public.

And for kids who are just starting to find their voice, this can really complicate things.

Different Types of Lisps

Graphic of face with sound waves, to reflect on different types of lisps.

There are four main types of Lisps:

  • Lateral Lisp: A lateral lisp occurs when the /s/ and /z/ sounds are produced with air flowing over the sides of the tongue, resulting in a “wet” sound.
  • Palatal Lisp: In a palatal lisp, the /s/ and /z/ sounds are pronounced with the tongue in contact with the roof of your mouth, resulting in a “slushy” sound.
  • Frontal Lisp: This type of lisp happens when the /s/ and /z/ sounds are pronounced with the tongue too far forward, resulting in more of a “th” sound.
  • Dental Lisp: The dental lisp is the most common type of lisp and it involves the tongue coming into contact with the front teeth, resulting in the /s/ and /z/ sounds being pronounced with a “th” sound similar to the frontal lisp.

How to Treat a Lisp

Treating a lisp typically involves a combination of speech therapy with a qualified speech-language pathologist (SLP) and consistent practice.

Your SLP will suggest a treatment plan based on:

  • The type of lisp you’re dealing with and,
  • What is causing it.

Treatment will often include exercises to improve tongue placement, airflow, and articulation of “s” and “z” sounds.

In some cases, other interventions may be recommended, such as orofacial myofunctional therapy to address underlying muscle coordination issues, behavioral therapy to modify speech patterns and habits, or a frenotomy if a tongue tie is causing the lisp.

Tongue with speech therapy tool, illustrating treatment methods for lisps.

When Should My Child With a Lisp Get Treatment?

Speech Therapy words and pacifier, emphasizing early intervention in 'what's a lisp' discussions.

It depends on what’s causing it.

Depending on what’s causing your child’s lisp, you may want to take action right away, while other times, it might be best to wait and see if things improve on their own.

A frontal lisp is often just a part of young children’s developmental journey. As they grow and learn new sounds, the lisp may naturally improve on its own so a speech-language pathologist might wait until age seven before providing intervention.

A lateral lisp on the other hand is not considered a developmental distortion so treatment can begin earlier, usually around four and a half years of age, to address this type of lisp.

Consulting with a licensed speech therapist is the best way to figure out the best course of action and the timing.

How to Support Your Child With a Lisp

Whether you’re waiting it out, or actively treating the lisp, there are things you want to keep in mind in order to support your child along their journey:

  • Create a supportive environment: Avoid any form of mockery or ridicule
  • Encourage confidence and self-esteem: Praise their efforts and focus on their strengths, rather than their speech impediment.
  • Encourage open communication: Provide a safe space for your child to express themselves without fear of judgment.
  • Be mindful of their feelings: Make sure they feel included in conversations and activities and encourage peers and family members to be patient and understanding too.
Child and parent hands forming a heart, symbolizing support for kids with a lisp.

Working With the Right Speech-Language Pathologist

Finding the right Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) can make a world of difference in your or your child’s communication abilities.

Look for an SLP licensed and certified by ASHA with experience. Find someone who will customize their therapy to suit the unique requirements of your child with a lisp.

At Virtual Speech Therapy LLC, our seasoned team boasts over 50 years of collective experience, catering to individuals of all ages and diverse communication needs. Plus, we offer the convenience of therapy sessions right from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re ready to take the first step toward improving your communication abilities, reach out today to schedule your initial consultation.