What is Developmental Language Disorder?
Posted on: November 22, 2021
Those with DLD have ongoing difficulties understanding and/or using spoken language. It’s a type of speech, language and communication need that significantly impacts how they communicate.
Language, from verbal to written to signed, is a skill used to communicate with each other and understand the world around us. Most of us use language to share ideas or feelings without giving these moments a second thought. Yet, that’s not the case for people with developmental language disorder, also known as DLD.
According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, developmental language disorder affects about two children in every class of 30 across the UK. However, it’s fluctuated between different names, which adds confusion and complexity to those seeking help and resources. For many years “Specific Language Impairment” was the widespread terminology used for this disorder. Meanwhile, there were other terms also used. To improve research efforts and help those affected, an international panel of experts chose “developmental language disorder” as the official term.
With the number of children affected by DLD, it’s critical that more people learn how to assist and guide those who have difficulty using and/or understanding language.
How to identify Developmental Language Disorder
Unlike some language disorders, developmental language disorder refers to consistent language development difficulties that impede everyday life but that are not connected to a known biological cause or brain injury.
It’s important to distinguish between “late talkers” and those with DLD. Some children under five years old may start speaking later, experiencing language delay, though they understand the language that is spoken to them. These children often “catch up” with others their age and are considered “late talkers.” Those with DLD significantly struggle with language comprehension and are less likely to resolve themselves later. If a child has ongoing difficulties with language ability past five and a half years old, a professional should be consulted for a possible DLD diagnosis.
Furthermore, a young child with DLD may also struggle with attention, behavior, executive functioning, peer problems, motor skills, social interaction and emotional difficulties. Some may have additional diagnoses alongside DLD, such as ADHD or dyslexia. All of these factors must be considered when engaging and guiding those with DLD.
This short animation was created by RADLD for DLD Awareness Day 2021 and explains some of the difficulties children with DLD face and signs for teachers to look out for.
What are the causes and symptoms of developmental language disorder in children?
A commonly asked question is: “Why do some children have DLD?”
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer. Despite research into DLD, there isn’t an answer to why some children have DLD and others don’t.
However, identifying any language difficulty sooner, rather than later can help those affected with DLD in the long term through early interventions and in-depth programs, such as those included in DLD and Me: Supporting Children and Young People with Developmental Language Disorder.
Sowerbutts and Finer explain that those who struggle with developmental DLD, can have a number of symptoms: For example, learning new words may be more difficult with language delay. Similarly, they may not be able to express their thoughts clearly in spoken language — perhaps, mixing up word structure or tenses and grammar. Difficulty reading and writing, mispronunciations and/or misunderstanding language-based jokes can be an ongoing struggle.
How can you help children with developmental language disorder?
The first step to helping children with DLD is to recognize that there is a language problem and then to reach out to professionals for help. A speech and language therapist and/or teacher with DLD expertise can both be huge resources for children with DLD and can help map out a plan to assist the young child.
Some helpful ways to support a child with DLD in the classroom include:
- Using simple, uncomplicated language to communicate with them. (Repeat words, as needed.)
- Allowing time for them to process words and verbally express their ideas.
- Utilizing visuals alongside spoken information to teach.
Getting additional help, such as language therapy, for DLD in early childhood has been shown to improve a child’s speech and language learning potential, though many children with DLD will always have difficulties with language development.
A great resource is Anna Sowerbutts and Amanda Finer’s “DLD and Me: Supporting Children and Young People with Developmental Language Disorder,” where they discuss the ways in which developmental language disorder affects children between the ages of 9 and 16, including a 12-week program plan to help engage with them and work on their strengths.
The book was inspired by the authors’ own experiences working in schools with children diagnosed with DLD. Previously, both authors had spent years working with children with autism that focused on helping them understand their own diagnosis. Noticing that the equivalent didn’t exist in current DLD-focused sessions, Sowerbutts and Finer worked together to create this practical workbook and fill that urgent gap within DLD resources.
This practical workbook guides professionals through an easy-to-follow, 12-week program specifically designed to help young people effectively self-advocate and understand their own needs. Each week’s session is built on the four pillars of the book, which are to help individuals:
- Know themselves.
- Know their needs.
- Identify strategies to manage those needs.
- Communicate those needs to others.
Each session plan is an hour-long and includes activities for follow-up sessions and homework activities that the young person’s family can get involved with.
Although there are 12 sessions, this intervention can be run weekly, monthly or “as a more intensive holiday group,” according to the authors. Each session can also be adjusted to fit a shorter or longer timeframe — just reduce or add to the number of activities in each session.
Besides the session plans for therapists and professionals, the workbook includes:
- Visual resources alongside sessions, available to copy and download online.
- Homework sheets to engage family members and keep them informed.
- Information sheets and training plans for parents.
- Outcome measures to evaluate progress throughout the program.
The book was created for children ages 9 to 16, but the authors do note that this doesn’t have to refer to chronological age — instead, suitability can be determined from each child’s own maturity and capabilities.
You'll find the full 12 week program in Anna Sowerbutts and Amanda Finer’s DLD and Me: Supporting Children and Young People with Developmental Language Disorder. You can also hear the authors explain the program in more detail in the following video.
Additional support and resources
The key to helping those with DLD is to bring greater awareness and knowledge to the community about this communication disorder. By doing this, parents, educators and professionals can recognize the signs sooner and get children the help they need right away. DLD is a lifelong condition but when combined with early intervention, it can become more manageable and improve the lives, mental health, language skill, learning capabilities, social understanding and more of those affected.
For more resources, explore our vast and comprehensive collection of educational literature and resources for developmental language disorder.