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What is a language disorder?

What are Speech, Language and Communication Needs?

Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) is a broad umbrella category and label which applies to people with any type of communication difficulty or communication vulnerability.

What is a language disorder?

A face looking confused with a question mark

A language disorder is a diagnosis given to a child or young person who has ongoing difficulty with understanding and or using language which has a significant impact on that child or young person’s functioning in everyday life, for example, social and or education.

Some children and young people have a language disorder that is associated with another condition, for example, learning disability, autism, Down’s syndrome, hearing impairment, and brain injury.

Other children have a language disorder that is not associated with another condition. This is known as Developmental Language Disorder (or DLD).

Many children with a language disorder may have other diagnoses as well, such as:

What do children and young people with a language disorder have difficulty with?

one person helping another

Every child with a language disorder is unique and will present differently.

They may have difficulty:

  • recognising when communication has broken down and need help to fix it
  • understanding what people are saying to them
  • understanding what they have read
  • predicting and problem solving with language (this can be for social events as well as practical events)
  • explaining ideas using sentence structures compared with other children of the same age
  • telling stories in the right order (it might come out ‘all jumbled’)
  • having a conversation

They may:

  • leave words out
  • say words in the wrong order
  • confuse tenses and have other grammar difficulties (for example, use present tense “drinking” for something that happened in the past)

They may also have difficulty:

  • understanding and or learning vocabulary in comparison to other children of the same age
  • recalling vocabulary (also known as word finding difficulties)
  • learning the sounds in words (including longer words such as ‘elephant’ or ‘photosynthesis’)
  • understanding multiple word meanings (for example, vocabulary ‘seasons’ – spring, summer, autumn, winter or salt and pepper? and non-literal language ‘you’re on thin ice’)
  • interpreting or understanding social situations
  • thinking of the answer to a question and may repeat the question or part of their sentence while thinking of the ‘next bit’

Many children with a language disorder have developed relatively good skills to talk about things that are easy to explain or familiar to them. However, they may struggle to adapt their language or use different language structures when talking about things that are complex or less familiar to them.

A language disorder can therefore sometimes be very ‘hidden’ as children and young people learn to ‘get by’ or ‘mask’ their difficulties by using their relative strengths.

Some children and young people have difficulty coping when there is a communication breakdown, when they have not understood, or cannot explain what they want to say, and at these times can show physical or verbal behaviours. For some, this can be for a lot of the time as they feel very frustrated that they cannot understand what is being said around them or to them. It is therefore important that children with behaviour difficulties access assessment of their communication to identify any underlying language needs.

Videos that talk about a range of communication needs and language disorders:

Down Syndrome Answers: When do babies with Down syndrome learn to talk?

Time: 0:42

Makaton is Back at Wargrave!

Time: 0:27

Communication: speaking to people with a learning disability

Time: 4:43

Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)

Time: 2:51

Children’s views of Developmental Language Disorder

Time: 1:32

How can a language disorder impact my child?

a face looking confused with a question mark

Children and young people with a language disorder need adult support to:

  • communicate and interact with others
  • make and keep friendships
  • talk about complex topics and events or things that they are not very familiar with
  • fix a breakdown in communication
  • understand and access the school or college curriculum
  • plan and organise themselves, for example, packing their school bag, attending appointments

They may also need additional support to:

  • develop their emotional regulation and behaviour strategies

Will my child ‘grow out of it?’

A face looking confused with a question mark

Some children start talking later than their peers. Many of these children catch up with their talking, and are generally known as ‘late talkers’. Other children will continue to have significant language difficulties and may later be diagnosed with a language disorder.

By the time children are school age it can be easier to know what things may look like for them as they get older.

Children who have been diagnosed with a language disorder by this age will benefit from support throughout their lifetime to understand and use spoken language.

The nature of a child’s language disorder diagnosis will change as they develop through adolescence and into adulthood. They may require different levels and types of support for their understanding and use of language at different points in their lifetime.

As children get older, many develop functional communication skills and become skilled at using their strengths to interact and learn.

How can a Speech & Language Therapist help?

one person helping another

  • Assess your child’s speech and language skills
  • Diagnose your child if their needs are significant and they reach threshold for diagnosis
  • Make recommendations for strategies that adults and the child can use to support their communication and interactions

Additional resources and information

Videos that show some teenagers and adults and their communication needs:

Needing extra time to process information

Time: 2:23

What is a learning disability?

Time: 1:08

Down’s syndrome: Listen to Me

Time: 1:25

Life as an adult with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)

Lily Farrington’s Amazing Developmental Language Disorder Animation

Time: 2:00

Contact us

For more information please contact the Speech and Language Therapy Service at Flockton House on 0114 226 2333.

Is something missing from this resource that you think should be included? Please let us know

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: SL237

Resource Type: Article

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