Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): Lurking in the shadows

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Speech Pathologists so often hear others comment that the reason for a child’s poor performance at school is simply “they just tune out… if they could only pay attention for long enough they’d be fine”.  Most of the time, there is another explanation for a child’s inattentiveness.

What is Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)?

Developmental Language Disorder is a general term that Speech Pathologists now use to describe children who have difficulties across their receptive and expressive language. Receptive language refers to a child’s ability to understand what is being said to them. A child with DLD may have difficulty following instructions or understanding new words (vocabulary) introduced at home or in the classroom. Expressive language refers to a child’s ability to express themself using skills including, but not limited to, age-appropriate vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure. A child presenting with DLD may not be able to express his or herself effectively due to difficulties in any number of these areas.

One of the most important things to realise is just how common it is. According to Professor Dorothy Bishop (University of Oxford), “up to two children in every classroom of 30 has this condition1.

What are the problems associated with DLD?

Children with DLD may often not be identified or diagnosed early enough, or at all. Unlike problems with producing speech sounds, language difficulties can be more subtle and more difficult to pick up on, and may be put down to a child’s behaviour.

In fact, DLD can directly affect behaviour because these children find accessing subject matter in the classroom so difficult without assistance. This in turn increases their risk of lower academic achievement, mental health issues and difficulties with social interactions. As you can see, it can have a huge impact on almost every aspect on their lives.

What can be done to help?

Undergoing a holistic and comprehensive assessment with a Speech Pathologist, and any other professionals that may be required (eg Paediatrician, Psychologist) and receiving a diagnosis is the first step. From here, a child’s needs for intervention can be determined and therapy can be provided to directly target these needs. Often this will involve assistance in accessing the curriculum through intervention for reading and writing, as well as therapy to improve use and understanding of vocabulary, grammar, sentence structures and concepts.

Pamela Snow (La Trobe University), points out that a child with DLD requires “more repetitions and opportunities for mastery2, which highlights the importance of providing them with this extra one on one help beyond the classroom.

It is also important to provide support to parents and classroom teachers in order to assist in identifying children that may be at risk of DLD, so that children can be screened and assessed as early as possible. The sooner therapy can begin (if required), the better the outcomes for the child will be. Speech Pathologists can also work alongside teachers to generate strategies that will help support a child with DLD in the classroom. Such strategies may include the use of visuals to assist with longer instructions, providing fewer distractions in their working space and more time and support to complete tasks where possible.