Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)…one of the most common conditions in children…and one of the most poorly recognised and understood! In fact, about 2 children in every class struggle with DLD, and which can significantly hinder academic performance if not addressed. They are often the quite, smiley children who tend to slip under the radar in busy, hectic classrooms.
So what is DLD? It is a diagnosis given to children who have great difficulties acquiring the complexities of language. Children with DLD have difficulty understanding what other people are saying and/or struggle to express themselves through spoken language. You may know some children who have DLD, or who may have a diagnosis of SLI (Specific Language Impairment) – this is the old term and is no longer used. Instead, all children with difficulty understanding and/or using spoken language, that is not linked to any other condition (e.g. Downs Syndrome, Autism, Sensorineural hearing loss) and that has persisted into school-age and beyond, are diagnosed by a Speech and Language Therapist with having DLD. Of course, children can have a language disorder associated with another condition, but to have a diagnosis of Developmental Language Disorder, there is usually no association with any other known condition.
So why did the name change from SLI to DLD? It was noticed that some children were missing out on vital Speech and Language Therapy support because they did not meet the very limited, and specific criteria of ‘Specific Language Impairment’… after all, language disorders are not always specific and can co-occur with other difficulties, e.g. literacy difficulties.
MYTH 1 - SHE WILL PROBABLY GROW OUT OF IT!
Naturally, many parents start to worry when they notice that their little boy or girl is not talking as much as other children. They chat about it with their social support network and, of course, their family and friends try to help by saying that there’s nothing to worry about and they know of other children that took a long time to start talking…but now they can’t get them to stop talking! So, the parents feel a little more at ease and decide not to take their child to the GP or Health Visitor after all…they wrongly assume that their child will just ‘grow out’ of any language difficulty.
On the contrary, a child who starts school with limited language skills is very likely to struggle with their language throughout the rest of their school years and even into adulthood. Children with DLD find it challenging to catch-up with their peers language skills and often maintain a language gap of around 2-3 years behind. Teachers in particular must remember that ‘language is the foundation for learning’. With this is mind, it is clear to see why children with DLD often struggle to keep up in class. [To help identify and help children with DLD, please see my blog post ‘Developmental Language Disorder – How can I help?’]
MYTH 2 – HE’S JUST NAUGHTY OR BEING LAZY!
Have you noticed how fast some people talk?...or how long and complex their sentences are? Now imagine you were in a noisy classroom environment and being told what to do that morning…AND you had DLD!
Lots of children with DLD have great difficulty understanding what other people are saying, especially when there are lots of other distractions. It’s hard for them to process and remember long instructions or sentences, let alone being able to then formulate a coherent response to any questions.
THE RESULT…they may not do as you ask or may give an inappropriate response! Often, children with DLD are twice as likely as their peers to be described as having poor attention and challenging behaviour. Not surprising considering that language is a key tool for being able to express our feelings and regulate our emotional states. Language is also needed for successful social interaction, such as negotiating with other children. I think we would all be a little frustrated if we were unable to express ourselves through verbal language, and many children with DLD also feel this way. The child learns a more successful, but less appropriate, method of communicating his feelings and wants…through non-verbal actions and behaviour.
So remember…it’s always worth asking yourself if DLD may be a factor with those ‘naughty’ or ‘lazy’ children.
MYTH 3 - IT’S THE PARENTS FAULT!
People often assume that uneducated parents in socially disadvantaged circumstances don’t talk to their children enough, which may result in the child have a language disorder. However, the research states that, in most cases, DLD arises from genetic influences on early brain development. We can’t yet biologically test for language disorders, but we do know that parents rarely cause their child’s language difficulties.
There is, however, still an association with language deficits and social disadvantage. The link is more likely to be due to the fact that children with DLD grow up to be adults with language disorders. Due to challenges throughout education, such a reading skills, these children (now adults) are likely to have lower literacy skills and are less likely to attend University or seek skilled jobs, reducing economic opportunity. Thus, social disadvantage may reflect these genetic influences that give rise to DLD.
It is also worth noting that successful communication between two people is typically fluid. If a child does not respond back to you, or does not respond quickly enough, it is not surprising that some parents may find talking to that child challenging. Some parents may find it unnatural and difficult to talk and read to their child, and talking and reading to a young, silent child, may be even more uncomfortable and challenging.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds with language difficulties, particularly those with a family history of language, literacy or learning difficulties, should be seen for assessment and support as soon as possible by a Speech and Language Therapist. Just because genetic influences play a role in DLD, does not mean we can do little to make things better. Speech Therapists can support parents to adapt their communication to enhance their child’s language development.
MYTH 4 - BILINGUAL CHILDREN HAVE IT WORSE
Should I only speak one language at home…maybe just English? Put simply…a child who is exposed to two languages is not going to develop a language disorder because of this, or make one worse. Bilingual parents should continue to talk with their child in whatever language they feel most comfortable speaking. The aim is for children to be hearing lots high-quality language, no matter what language that may be.
Identifying DLD is slightly more complicated with a bilingual child. In the ideal world, we would have access to language assessments to identify both understanding and spoken language skills in all of the languages the child speaks. However, with over 300 different languages spoken in the UK today…this makes it near impossible. Instead we look for markers to point to necessary additional support. For instance, was the child slow to start speaking and using language, does the child’s family history tell us anything, and is the child making slow progress in learning English after starting school?
MYTH 5 – IT’S TOO LATE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE ONCE THE CHILD IS AT SCHOOL
As with other developmental conditions…such as Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) or Down’s Syndrome…the goal of any intervention is not to “cure”, but instead to maximise a child’s language ability and to enhance communication skills working from the child’s current strengths. We must strive to not only promote awareness of DLD, but to provide all the additional support that these children so desperately need in order to reduce the longer term risks to learning, social well-being, and metal health.
Yes, early identification and intervention is always important, however, we must not forget the other moments in a child’s life that may be more challenging for a child with DLD, such as transitional periods. As children get older, the language demands and expectations being placed on them increases. This is particularly noticeable at school when the curriculum becomes more demanding and also the language needed to manage social relationships becomes more complex. Unfortunately, services for children with DLD tend to reduce as they get older. Services throughout secondary school are slim, and adult services for DLD are vastly limited.
Difficulty with understanding and/or formulating language to express thoughts and feelings (Developmental Language Disorder) is a hidden but common disorder. There is lots of support that we can put in place straight away. Spread the word!
Please share this post and help us put Developmental Language Disorder back on people’s radars. There is so much we can do and it’s never too late to put support in place.
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