Developmental Language Disorder: A Very Common And Often Overlooked Condition

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 

Parents love to fret about milestones. We worry about when our kids start crawling, walking, and talking. We take notes and compare with other parents. And when development seems atypical, we discuss our concerns with pediatricians and ask questions. Lots of questions.

For the most part, the range of “normal” development when it comes to things like language and speech is wide, with late bloomers often catching up to their peers in time. But in some cases — far more than you’d expect — speech issues aren’t just delayed development, but a medical condition called developmental language disorder (DLD).

Up until recently, there was some confusion even among the experts about DLD, but a group of researchers in England recently released some helpful information about the genetic condition. With about 7.5% of children — or about 2 in every classroom of 30 students — affected by the condition, it is far more pervasive than once thought. And because half of all cases of DLD go undiagnosed, many children aren’t getting the treatment they need.

According to The Guardian, DLD is characterized by an unexplained language delay that continues into school years. Children with DLD have a hard time understanding what people say to them, and because their language is limited, they also have a difficult time expressing their own thoughts and feelings. Unlike the “late bloomer,” research shows that a child entering school with DLD is very likely to have language problems throughout childhood and even into adulthood.

In fact, Courtenay Norbury, a professor of developmental language and communication disorders at University College London, says that children with DLD often lag behind their peers in language skills by two to three years during the first few years of school, and there is little evidence of “catching up.” What’s more, because language is the foundation for all learning, students with DLD typically struggle in a number of other areas as well.

Contrary to what some might think, children with DLD aren’t lazy or ill-behaved. Rather, because they have a medical condition that makes it difficult for them to understand what people are saying, they may have trouble following instructions and can seem disobedient or uninterested.

“Children with DLD are twice as likely as their peers with good language to be rated as having poor attention and behavior,” wrote Norbury. “This is probably a consequence of having to navigate the world with limited language.”

Similarly, the speech delays involved with DLD aren’t caused by poor parenting either. It isn’t the result of parents not talking to their kids enough or because a bilingual family speaks two languages with their children; rather, they are the result of genetic changes during early brain development.

It’s important to note, however, that even though DLD has genetic influences, there are still things we can do to help minimize its impact. Norbury suggests prioritizing speech-language therapy for children with DLD, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to help parents adapt to their child’s challenges and learn how to foster improved language skills.

“Language is a two-way street,” said Norbury. “If a child is not talking and doesn’t respond readily, parents may find interacting with that child challenging.”

Even though early intervention is ideal, there is no end game for treating DLD either. The goal of treatment is to improve language capabilities, enhance communication, and provide support to reduce the long-term risks. In fact, according to Norbury, many parents and professionals think adolescence and the transition to middle school and high school are periods when children with DLD are most vulnerable due to the “increasingly complex language demands of the curriculum and the nuanced language needed to manage social relationships during the teenaged years.” In fact, researchers have found that teens with DLD are more than twice as likely to report symptoms of depression.

This new information isn’t meant to alarm anyone, or send parents running to their pediatricians if their child isn’t saying 100 words by the time they’re 18 months old. Labels and diagnoses can be tricky, no doubt, but with increased awareness about DLD, the label might help parents get their kids the treatment and interventions they need to better communicate. After all, don’t we all want to be heard and understood?

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