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Developmental Disabilities

Developmental Language Disorders

Let’s Talk For People with Special Communication Needs: Developmental Language Disorders

Children with language disorders have difficulty expressing thoughts and/or understanding what is said or written.  Most child language disorders are developmental-that is, they show up as the child grows and develops and are not the result of known injury or other occurrence during childhood.

Developmental language disorders are different from acquired language disorders, called childhood aphasia.  Childhood aphasia appears specifically as a result of a head injury, stroke, or other neurological disturbance and may be treated differently from developmental disorders.

An individual with a developmental language disorder may be only mildly affected or may be severely affected.  Early intervention can reduce the oral communication problems associated with all levels of disorder and can alleviate some of the frustration both parents and child feel because of their inability to communicate effectively.  Intervention also can help reduce or prevent a progression of problems with written language (reading and writing), schoolwork, and social behavior.

There is no definite answer for what causes developmental language disorders.  Some research suggests that they result from altered development of the brain before birth, affecting the way the brain functions.  Sometimes the problem is secondary to another condition, such as hearing loss, cognitive impairment, or autism.

Specific Problems
Children with developmental language disorders may have difficulty with understanding spoken language (i.e., with receptive language skills) or with formulating messages or producing language (i.e., with expressive language skills).

Receptive and expressive language disorders may consist of difficulties with phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and/or pragmatics.  Respectively, these terms refer to the system of sounds that make up a language, the parts of words that give meaning to words (i.e., prefixes and suffixes), the way words are ordered to create meaning, the meanings of words and vocabulary, and the use of language in a social context.

For example, children with receptive language disorders may be unable to discriminate differences between speech sounds and among sequences of sounds in words.  They may not understand the meaning of word endings, such as adding “s” to mean “more than one.”  They may have difficulty understanding directions or questions because they do not understand how word order affects the sentence or because prepositions (i.e., behind, in front of, etc.) and adjectives (i.e., long, longer, etc.) are not meaningful to them, or because the sentence is too long to grasp the entire meaning.  They may have difficulty following a conversation, especially when the speaker talks fast and they may not understand indirect requests, sarcasm, or nonverbal signals such as body language.

Examples of expressive language disorders include leaving off endings of words or leaving out little words such as “is” and “are” in sentences.  Their ordering of words may not make sense, and their sentences may not be grammatical.  They may have a limited vocabulary.  They may mix up words such as “remind” and “remember,” or “where” and “when.”  They may use nonsense words without realizing it.  They may not always use language appropriately, or they may be overly direct or blunt.  They may not consider the other person’s needs in a conversation; for example, they may use “he” or “it” instead of clearly defining the subject or may change topics abruptly.  They also may not understand turn-taking in conversations and may frequently interrupt others.

Children who have problems with any of these aspects of language will have trouble communicating-that is, understanding others, making them understood, and/or participating appropriately in social situations.
General Indicators of Developmental Language Disorders:
–Absence of a word by age 18 months
–Absence of two-word phrases that have a message by age 2 years
–Inappropriate responses to questions
–Echoing of speech
–Poor intelligibility
–Undeveloped play skills
–Poor understanding or use of adjectives (descriptive words) and prepositions (in, out, under, etc.)
–Word-finding problems
–Dependent gestures to follow directions
–Requires frequent repetitions of directions
–Poor social interaction with peers (does not get along with other children)
–Poor school performance
Additional Resources
For assistance locating a speech-language pathologist in your area, or to receive additional information on speech-language disorders in children, call ASHA’s Action Center at 1-800-638-TALK (-8255).  Helpful resources include:

–“How Does Your Child Hear and Talk?” – helps parents identify possible speech, language, and hearing problems (includes checklist of developmental milestones)

–“Early Identification of Speech-Language Delays and Disorders” (Let’s Talk No. 32)- addresses importance of evaluation and identification

–“Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development” (Let’s Talk No. 42)- describes activities for ages 1-2, 2-4, and 4-6 years

–“Late Blooming or Language Problem?” (Let’s Talk No. 66)- discusses parental concerns about children’s development, factors the parents can look for, and the role of professionals evaluation