Developmental language disorder

Developmental language disorder

What is a developmental language disorder?

If your child’s language delay continues into their schooling years, this could indicate a developmental language disorder (DLD). Such children usually have prolonged difficulties understanding and using language. This means that these children are not able to close the gap between them and their peers in their receptive and expressive language skills.

It’s also important to note the difference between the terms language delay and developmental language disorder. A language delay suggests that a child is developing language at a slower rate than his or her same-aged peers. In contrast, a disorder indicates a more severe language problem that does not go away as a child grows older. It may even continue into adulthood.

Some children also have another learning disability that influences their language abilities, such as Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD and dyslexia. Hearing loss can also compromise your child’s language development, and may be especially hard to detect if it’s partial or only in one ear. This would mean they can hear certain sounds but not others.

Though much research has been done on DLD, the exact factors causing it are difficult to pinpoint. They are likely a combination of biological and environmental causes. As DLD tends to run in families, a child’s genetic makeup may make them more susceptible to having the disorder.

Difference in cognition may also determine whether a child has DLD. For example, some children are fast thinkers , learning and processing new information quickly. Others take a longer time to do so, and these differences in cognition may influence whether one has DLD.

A child’s environment may also play a role. Even before they are born, things that happen during pregnancy influence their brain and ability to use language effectively. This includes being born prematurely, having a low birth weight or a lack of oxygen to the brain. However, DLD isn’t found to be caused by parents not talking to their children enough , or speaking more than one language to them.

Typical signs of DLD include:


  • Difficulty understanding words that are being said
  • Appears to not understand or remember what was said
  • Difficulty asking questions
  • Difficulty in finding words to express thoughts
  • Style of speech appears below the level of peers their age
  • Difficulty following instructions that include multiple steps
  • Difficulty producing grammatical utterances
  • Difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, or math in school
  • Difficulty relating simple everyday experience, and telling unorganized stories with few details
  • Limited vocabulary and use of complex sentences

How does the disorder impact learning and development?

DLD has a significant impact on a child’s literacy, learning, friendships and emotional well-being. In terms of academic performance, they would have trouble using proper grammar and possess a limited vocabulary, thus affecting their reading, writing and oral skills.

With their language disorder, it’s hard for them to stay on topic, take turns in a conversation or comprehend sentences that are too long. Sharing information, telling stories and letting others know how they feel can be difficult too. This can lead to increased anxiety and frustration, causing them to act out.

Consequently, their social interactions (many kids with DLD experience bullying) and even future job prospects will be affected. Their difficulties in communication many also manifest as behavioural problems, attention difficulties or poor social skills.

How is the disorder assessed by Thomson Kids?

When a child is suspected to have DLD, our speech therapist will administer a standardised language test such as the Clinical Evaluations of Language Fundamentals-Fifth Edition to determine if your child meets the clinical criteria for DLD.

Symptoms of DLD present differently in all children, and symptoms in children vary according to age and the severity of children’s DLD. As children with DLD often have more than one neurobehavioural condition, our speech therapist will also make a referral for your child to see our psychologist for other cognitive and psychoeducational tests such as intelligence, attention, tests of processing information and academic tests.

These objective, standardised cognitive tests are important to identify the specific neurobehavioural conditions your child may be having. They will also help identify the strengths and weaknesses of your child’s cognitive skills. Once a comprehensive evaluation is completed, our therapist can begin to develop specific language goals to help your child develop their language skills.

How will an assessment benefit your child?

The evidence is clear that children with DLD need specific language interventions to remediate their language skills. Early identification and diagnosis makes a significant impact on academic performance, self- confidence and emotional resilience.

Lots of evidence suggests that intervention can be extremely effective in improving your child’s language skills. By being aware of the exact nature of your child’s language disorder, misconceptions will be demystified and you’ll be better equipped to nurture them. And even though children with DLD may fall behind their peers in terms of abilities, receiving support early will maximise their learning and communication potential.

A speech and language therapist is an essential part of early intervention. Besides creating a treatment plan to address your child’s language skills , she will also work with you to support your child in all environments such as home and school.

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