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What is Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)?


​People who have developmental language disorder (DLD) have difficulties with spoken language. As children, they may use simple or ungrammatical sentences, like a much younger child. As adults, they may have trouble finding words or organizing their thoughts in a way that is clear to their listener. At any age, they may have a hard time understanding spoken language or following verbal directions. The problems with language may transfer into their reading comprehension and written communications as well.

Over the years, developmental language disorder has been called many things: language disorder, language impairment, specific language impairment, language disorder and a myriad of other names that made diagnosing DLD confusing. In 2017 there was a concerted effort among English-speaking countries to create a standard term for these disorders and to adopt universally recognizable standards for diagnosis.

What's not confusing are the statistics tied to DLD and the children it affects:

  • 7.5% of the general population has DLD; that translates into about two children in every classroom of 30
  • 50 times more children deal with DLD than with congenital hearing impairment
  • 5 times more children have DLD than have autism spectrum disorder

What Causes DLD?

DLD does not have a single cause. It is caused by multiple risk factors working together. Parents should not feel guilt for their child's DLD because these risk factors are usually beyond their control.

DLD often runs in families. Each person has thousands of genetic variations that can interact to influence how the brain develops. If parents have enough of these DNA changes affecting parts of the brain that are important for language, the child may have DLD. Scientists call this polygenic risk because it's the combined effect of many genes.

Environmental stressors also play a part in the development of DLD. Factors such as diet deficiencies, low birth weight, premature birth and lack of oxygen before/during delivery can increase a child's risk of developing DLD. Science has a long way to go before we can forecast DLD based on these factors.

How Do You Identify DLD?

Often DLD is first suspected when a concerned adult has a child tested for other problems such as academic issues, behavioral issues or anxiety. It is easy to imagine how DLD could lead to such problems. For example, it is difficult to get good grades when you can't understand spoken directions.

Speech-language pathologists diagnose DLD by taking a careful birth and developmental history, administering tests of language that allow comparison to standard age-level expectations and observing the child or adult communicating during conversation, narration or other forms of speech. Identifying and treating DLD is important because it can impact children's ability to learn, to be active socially with their peers and to maintain emotional well-being.

Some potential signs of DLD include:

  • Being late to talk
  • A family history of speech, language, reading or learning problems
  • Talking like a much younger child
  • Difficulty following spoken directions
  • Difficulty finding the right words
  • Difficulty learning new words
  • Difficulty repeating a long sentence
  • Difficulty formulating complex sentences
  • Difficulty with spelling
  • Difficulty with reading
  • Frequent communication breakdowns with family or friends

For more information, visit, a website designed to promote understanding of DLD. 

When is it Time to Seek Help?

If you suspect your child is dealing with the effects of DLD, you can get help.

Your local public school district is required by law to provide free speech-language testing and assistance for eligible children between the ages of 3 and 21, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) Part B. Through the school district, you should have access to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who can help determine if your child qualifies for speech or language services.

Under IDEA Part C, eligible children between the ages of 0 and 3 also receive free services, so if you were to notice language issues even earlier, have your child assessed. The earlier the intervention, the better the possible outcomes.

You may wish to supplement any services your child receives at school with additional support.

If you would like to consult with the specialists at Boys Town Pediatric Speech-Language Therapy, click to schedule an evaluation or request an appointment.

Communication Skills;Language and Learning;Speech and Language Speech Therapy