What is Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)?

August 20, 2023by jineantheslp0

Are you feeling overwhelmed with your child’s recent diagnosis of DLD? I have had many parents over the years tell me that they have a strong urge to understand what they are dealing with after receiving a DLD diagnosis for their child but don’t know where to start. Maybe you have family members asking you, “What is developmental language disorder?” and you aren’t sure what to tell them. Or, perhaps you’re a parent who has heard of DLD but your child hasn’t been evaluated, and you are asking yourself, “Could my child have DLD?”. Well parents, this post is for you!  With compassion and care, I want to help you take the next step in knowing how to help your child with DLD.


What is Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)?

Developmental Language Disorder, also known as DLD, is an invisible communication disorder that results in your child struggling to understand and/or use spoken language without an obvious reason for this difficulty. For example, your child’s communication challenges don’t stem from something we would expect to make learning language difficult like hearing loss, intellectual impairment etc. With DLD, there is no reason for us to expect your child to struggle with language, but they do struggle and you may feel exasperated or anxious about how to help your child succeed. So, what does DLD entail?


Specific communication challenges can vary from child to child, but when they have DLD, we often see difficulty with:

  • Learning new words and understanding connections between words
  • Following multi-step instructions
  • Understanding and using complex sentences and grammar
  • Reading and writing
  • Understanding nuances of social language (e.g. jokes, sarcasm, etc)
  • Telling an easy-to-follow story (e.g. what happened today at recess)
  • Participating in class discussions
  • Completing homework, especially reading comprehension or writing tasks


Raising Awareness about DLD

As an SLP specializing in helping children with DLD, I am on a mission to increase awareness about developmental language disorder. Shockingly, most people I meet have never even heard of DLD even though it is nearly 7 times more common than autism! Would you join me in helping spread the word?

Imagine a world where your child walked into their school and every teacher knew about DLD and how to modify their lessons for your child! Or imagine meeting someone at the park or on the subway and when you mention DLD to them, they nod with understanding, rather than having a blank look on their face. Imagine your child struggling to resolve a conflict with a peer, but since the adult involved has knowledge about DLD and how to help your child, they are able to guide the conversation smoothly. Better yet, imagine your child accepting themself and advocating for themself with a classmate, saying something like, “I have DLD so sometimes it takes me a bit longer to process what I want to say. Would you mind waiting a second so I can gather my thoughts? I have something really important to share” and their peer responded with understanding and compassion because they have heard of DLD too? Finally, imagine your child going to work

in the future and automatically receiving an accommodation for their DLD since their boss and team members are all familiar with the condition and with ways to make it easier for your child to participate and contribute in workplace discussions! Most people in the world would happily show patience and kindness to someone with Down Syndrome or blindness because they can see by looking at the person that they may benefit from an accommodation. Even though DLD is an invisible disorder, by increasing awareness, we can bring about societal change so that if an individual decides to share their DLD diagnosis, they will be met with a similar openness. With knowledge comes power! Let’s join together so that developmental language disorder becomes as widely recognized as autism, ADHD, or Down Syndrome.

When those around you understand what DLD entails, they are much more likely to react with kindness, compassion, and patience.


Why Does My Child Have DLD?

The second question I often hear after answering “What is DLD?” is, “Why does my child have DLD?” or “What is the cause of DLD?” To begin with, I want to make it very clear that DLD is not caused by poor parenting. In the past, and even to this day in some places, the harmful message that parents caused or contributed to DLD is still being spread around. Let’s stand together against that damaging myth. The truth is, we don’t fully understand what causes DLD but we do know that there is a genetic component and if another family member has DLD, dyslexia, or another neurodevelopmental disorder, your child is more likely to have DLD as well.


DLD affects boys and girls to a similar degree, with boys being a little bit more likely to receive the diagnosis (1.3 boys for every 1 girl). However, boys are significantly more likely to receive speech and language therapy since differences in their behavior may magnify (boys) or hide (girls) their challenges to an extent.

What Treatment is Effective for DLD?

There is no cure for DLD and we can expect its impact to be lifelong. But, effective treatment is available and your child can develop much stronger communication skills with guidance and support! My first recommendation is always to find an SLP (speech-language pathologist, aka speech therapist) who is experienced in supporting children with DLD and get your child started with speech and language therapy where their own unique skills and challenges can be taken into account, and goals can be individualized. This is often available in the school system and/or privately. Communication between your child’s therapist and the school team is essential. When teachers and therapists and any other professionals involved in a child’s care are able to collaborate, that child can reap the benefits of a team approach with each member building upon each other’s work.

It is also very helpful for parents to increase their own knowledge and understanding about developmental language disorder so they can set their children up for success. It can be overwhelming to navigate all the information out there though, so I have created a comprehensive, self-paced course called Communicate with Confidence! It clearly outlines how DLD impacts language development at home, at school, and in social situations and provides practical strategies for how to help your child communicate more clearly in each of those areas. 


Snapshot of a Child with DLD

Maria is an 8-year-old child who was diagnosed with developmental language disorder 2 years ago. She loves playing Minecraft, softball, and drawing pictures for her family. As a toddler, Maria didn’t talk as quickly as her cousins, the children from her mom’s birth club, or her older sister. Maria’s mom noticed that Maria needed to hear a word over and over in order to learn it. She also talked in basic sentences like, “me want that” when a peer might have said, “Could I please have those scissors?” Maria tended to get frustrated when communicating, using a lot of general-words like that, thing, stuff because she often couldn’t think of the word or didn’t know the word that would make her sentence clearer. 


As Maria got older, she did learn more words but her progress was slow. As an older child, her language skills improved but she never seemed to catch up to her peers. When her friends started to sound like little adults while talking, Maria still got confused with the grammar in her sentences, saying things other kids called baby talk like, “I already eated my apple” or “I goed to the library”. She also mixed up plurals saying, “I saw two childs at the park”. If Maria’s Dad told her that the other sock she was looking for was behind her, Maria might look in front of her feet or beside her chair since she didn’t quite understand the meaning of behind or other position words.


Maria’s parents also noticed that it was hard to follow what she was talking about when she told them about her time at recess. They were particularly concerned when Maria came home crying one day, saying something about a broken paper airplane at recess but struggling to summarize what happened, and they were left feeling confused and helpless when trying to comfort their daughter as they had no idea who did what in the upsetting interaction. They also saw her trying to tell a joke at a birthday party recently, but the whole thing flopped since she clearly did not understand the punchline of the joke and mixed it up. Several kids looked at her with disdain, walking away rolling their eyes and Maria’s mom felt like her heart was breaking.


Bedtime was also challenging for Maria, as she seemed to resist listening to the stories that her older sister loved at her age, or when she did snuggle up and listen, she often asked repeated questions about who the characters were or why they were doing something, demonstrating a lack of understanding of what had happened in the previous chapter the night before. Homework time also became a battle each day as Maria would often sit in front of a blank page for what felt like hours or would start to cry as soon as Mom or Dad tried to help her.


It was at this point, following a meeting with Maria’s teachers, that they decided to ask about a block of language therapy with the speech-language pathologist at Maria’s school. They also wanted to learn how to best help Maria at home, so they signed up for Communicate with Confidence. Maria’s parents both work, with her dad balancing two jobs to help pay for softball costs for both Maria and her sister. They love how they can take the course at their own pace, re-watching parts they want to focus on as many times as needed, and printing out helpful resources to put on their fridge to remind them of strategies or language features they want to model consistently.


As their understanding of Maria’s challenges and effective strategies has increased, they have also realized that some of what they thought was bad behavior was actually a result of DLD. When asking Maria to do several tasks at once, they thought she was being lazy or defiant when she only did one thing or didn’t even start at all. However, they have learned how to change the way they ask Maria to do things so that she is more likely to be successful. 


Parenting a Child with DLD with Acceptance and Compassion

Parenting a child with DLD with compassion and empathy has its own unique set of challenges but is so vitally important! When you understand DLD and how it impacts your child, you are in a much better place to help your child feel accepted and valued. Consider joining me on the quest to raise awareness about this very common yet relatively unknown condition. Your child has an exciting future ahead, and sharing information with the world about this condition can help pave the way for more compassion, effective intervention, and accommodations to help your child thrive! You are not alone. There are many other families navigating DLD, and many professionals are working to help your child succeed. Be sure to stay involved in our community as we share helpful content.




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