What Is Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)?

You may not have heard of developmental language disorder, called DLD for short. Although this language disorder is fairly common, most people don’t know much about it, or what DLD symptoms look like in children.

Read on to learn what a developmental language disorder is, the signs and symptoms, and how it’s diagnosed and treated. We also share 6 ways you can help your child with DLD at home. 

What is developmental language disorder?

According to the National Institutes of Health, developmental language disorder is a communication disorder that interferes with learning, understanding, and using language. This term describes what you may have previously heard called specific language impairment, language delay, or developmental dysphasia. 

Kids with DLD have difficulty understanding and using words and language as a whole. This can affect their abilities with receptive language (how they understand language) and expressive language (how they communicate). It can also negatively impact their ability to read and write. 

Kids with DLD have difficulty understanding and using words and language as a whole. This can impact their ability to read and write. 

DLD is not the same thing as a learning disability. However, children with DLD are at higher risk for having learning disabilities. People with DLD are 6 times more likely to be diagnosed with reading and spelling disabilities and 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with math disabilities than people who don’t have DLD.

What causes DLD?

The exact causes of DLD aren’t known. DLD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, or a difference in the brain.

We do know that neurodevelopmental disorders tend to run in families. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, 50 to 70 percent of children with DLD have a family member who also has the disorder. In addition, other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as dyslexia and autism, are more common in the family members of a child with DLD.

Can kids grow out of developmental language disorder?

A common misconception is that DLD is present only in childhood, but this is not true. DLD will exist throughout the person’s life, even into adulthood. A developmental language disorder can make it difficult for adults to communicate socially and at work. That’s why it’s important for DLD to be identified as early as possible, so that people can get the help they need. 

In order to do this, we need to understand the signs and symptoms of DLD. Keep in mind that the symptoms of developmental language disorder will look different as the person ages.

Signs and symptoms of DLD in children

DLD is considered to be as common as ADHD and even more common than autism. For example, DLD affects about 1 in 14 kindergarteners. 

Research has shown that even though it’s common, developmental language disorder is often overlooked or confused with something else, even by classroom teachers. It’s vital for teachers to notice the signs of DLD because it can negatively affect a child’s academic performance and social skills.

It’s vital to notice the signs of DLD because it can negatively affect a child’s academic performance and social skills.

Most kids with DLD struggle in some way in school. Difficulty with language and academics can cause students to feel embarrassed or misunderstood. This can make it hard to make friends, and it can lead to behavior issues or even dropping out of school.

So, what are the signs of DLD? Kids with DLD may have any of the following symptoms:

  • Considered a “late talker”

  • Difficulty learning to read

  • Difficulty writing

  • Poor ability to follow directions, especially directions with multiple steps

  • Limited vocabulary; uses general words like “things” or “stuff” a lot

  • Mixes up words and uses them incorrectly

  • Difficult to understand when telling stories or participating in conversation

  • Many grammatical errors in their speech

  • Difficulty understanding what’s spoken to them 

Signs and symptoms of DLD in adults

Developmental language disorder affects adults as well. Adults with DLD may have any of the following symptoms:

  • Uses more simple sentences; avoids talking in complex sentences

  • May have trouble using the right words when talking

  • Difficult to understand when telling stories 

  • Trouble with reading

  • Has writing that’s hard to understand

Although DLD is lifelong, early intervention can help kids get the support they need. Diagnosis is a big key in helping these children. Let’s cover more on diagnosis and treatment of DLD. 

Diagnosing and treating DLD 

A speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist, plays a big part in diagnosing DLD. This is done during a speech and language evaluation. The speech therapist will do standardized tests to assess a child’s receptive and expressive language abilities. Teachers may also contribute by providing information on the child’s learning skills and performance in the classroom. 

If you think your child might have DLD, talk to your child’s pediatrician or teachers about an evaluation. If your child is diagnosed with DLD, their teachers will know how to better help them in the classroom. They might give your child more time to process what’s said to them, or they can present instructions in different ways, such as in writing or using visual supports. The teacher can also emphasize important things said during class to help your child process the information. 

Speech therapy may be recommended for children with DLD. A speech therapist can help your child increase their receptive language, as well as their expressive language. Speech therapy for young kids may focus on grammar usage, increasing vocabulary, and improving social communication skills. Older kids who are in school may practice following directions, improving their vocabulary comprehension, and understanding what’s said to them.

Although DLD can’t be “cured,” the right support as early in life as possible can go a long way.

6 ways to help your child with DLD at home

There are many things you can do at home every day to help your child communicate better. Many of these relate to how you talk and present information to your child. Here are 6 techniques to try:

1 Use simple language

Avoid using long, complex sentences. Shorter, simpler language will be easier for your child to follow. For example, instead of saying, “After you come inside, go take a seat at the table,” try, “Please go inside. Then sit at the table.” 

2 Make sure your child is focused on you as you talk

You can have them put their eyes on you, turn to face you, and even watch your mouth. The goal is to encourage them to pay attention as you speak, so they can better process what you’re saying.

3 Ask simple questions

Instead of asking, “What did you do at school today?,” try a more focused question: “Did you go to art or music today?” Offering choices when you ask questions is also helpful. Instead of asking your kiddo what they want for a snack, provide two or three options to choose from: “Would you like yogurt or pretzels?”

4 Give them time to respond to a question or during conversation

Patience is important! Your child may need more time to think and process before they can respond.

5 Model correct grammar when they make a mistake

An easy way to do this is to repeat or agree with what your child said, but use correct grammar. If your child says, “I drinked my water,” you can say, “Yes, you drank your water.”

6 If you’re giving your child directions, show them what you need them to do

Your hand gesture, pointing, or other visual will help them understand what you’re asking them to do. You can also break down directions into step-by-step parts.

Above all else, make sure to encourage your child. Let them know you’re proud of them! Everyone deserves to be heard and understood. Having a disorder like DLD can make that hard for kids, but your help can make a big difference.

Recognize your child's strengths and weaknesses, and use their abilities to help them communicate as clearly as possible. They can succeed in communication, relationships, and academics with the right support. And it all starts at home with you!  

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