Developmental Language Disorder: Hidden in Plain Sight

Have You Heard About Developmental Language Disorder?

The recent government changes to the Ontario Autism Plan have sparked increased awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a condition characterized by difficulties with social skills, behaviour, speech, and nonverbal communication, that affects 1.5% of children and youth in Canada. Awareness and advocacy for ASD are on the rise, but have you heard about Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)? Estimates suggest that 7.6% of all children have DLD, a condition where children experience challenges understanding and/or using spoken language (RADLD, n.d.).

DLD is identified when a child has problems with language development that continue into school age and beyond. DLD commonly occurs with ADHD and dyslexia, and can impact everyday social interaction, educational progress, and mental health (RADLD, n.d.). While there are risk factors for DLD, it occurs in the absence of ASD, intellectual disability, or any known biomedical condition.

The Invisibility of DLD

Given the high rate of occurrence, studies have shown that in five year olds, DLD affects about 2 children in every primary grade classroom. DLD is quite prevalent but may not be easy to see and could be hidden behind challenges with attention, following instructions, or interacting with others.

The two main features of DLD are difficulty understanding spoken language and challenges putting thoughts into words and sentences. Other key features for children include:

  • Difficulty saying what they want to, even though they have ideas
  • Struggling to find the words they want to use
  • Talking in sentences that are difficult to understand
  • Sounding muddled; it can be difficult to follow what they are saying
  • Finding it difficult to understand words and long instructions
  • Having difficulty remembering the words they want to say
  • Finding it hard to join in and follow what is going on in the playground


DLD in the Classroom

DLD is a diagnosis that is prominently given by the age of 5, at which point it is likely that language difficulties will persist into adolescence and adulthood. It is incredibly important for speech-language pathologists to join forces with parents, teachers, and school support staff to provide education about the importance of timely identification of DLD, so that appropriate supports can be implemented to help students. Support from professionals, including Speech-Language Pathologists (S-LPs) can make a big difference.

In the classroom, students with DLD often experience difficulty (Graham et al., 2018):

  • using complete or complex sentences
  • linking their ideas and creating cohesive texts
  • retelling a story or event
  • finding the word they want to say or write to explain something
  • learning new words in various subject areas
  • spelling and reading, and
  • engaging in social interactions .

The classroom is a language-rich environment: most instruction is given verbally and most interactions require the use of words. Around grade 3, students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”, and language demands increase in tandem. Speech-Language Pathologists can help support students academically by teaching strategies to overcome these difficulties.

What’s in a name?

Part of the limited awareness about DLD stems from the lack of consistent terminology. There is a push in the clinical community to get on the same page about correctly identifying and labelling DLD. In the literature and across clinical contexts, DLD can be referred to as Specific Language Impairment, Language Learning Impairment, Language Delay, and Language Disorder.

Using a consistent diagnostic label supports the ease of communication, particularly for families of children with the diagnosis. When discussing language disorders, it is important to note that children with DLD are unlikely to grow out of their difficulties without intervention (Stothard et al., 1998). Left unaddressed, the impacts of DLD can affect a student’s ability to learn and interact socially. It is hoped that using a consistent term will enhance treatment access, availability and effectiveness, increase public awareness, and empower parents and the DLD community to engage and connect.

What You Can Do:

  1. Help raise awareness. Improving awareness, particularly for parents and educators, means that children with DLD have a higher likelihood of being identified early, having community supports, and receiving the necessary early intervention (Rice, 2018).
  2. Monitor your child’s language development. You can find out more about the typical trajectory of language and early speech and language milestones by checking out our blog post on speech and language milestones.
  3. Meet with a Speech-Language Pathologist (S-LP). If you are concerned about your child’s language development, an assessment by a registered S-LP can enable early identification and lead to support for your child in the home and at school.


Call now to book an appointment at Butterfly Paediatric Therapy (905) 206- 0300. Our Speech-Language Pathologists would be happy to help!