Many people are unaware they have developmental language disorder, but as a mum I know how tough it is to watch the everyday struggle of children with DLD.
TODAY is Developmental Language Disorder Awareness Day. Referred to as the most common childhood condition you have never heard about, DLD is a disorder you cannot see. About two children in every classroom have DLD.
Until about four years ago, I had never heard of DLD either, nor its previous name; Speech and Language Impairment. DLD is a condition that affects people’s abilities in understanding and/or using spoken language. Because it is a disorder that affects language, it also affects written language and the ability to become literate (to read, write and spell).
Some crudely explain DLD to be similar to what dyslexia is to written language, but to spoken, or oral, language. Oral language is something most of us take for granted. Everything we do involves language.
Unfortunately, many people have DLD and do not realise it. They suffer in silence, and feel a shame that they are unable to understand or express themselves in language like their peers do around them. This affects their ability to develop written language and become literate. Often, the underachievement of those with undiagnosed DLD is blamed on background, disadvantage or low IQ.
For me growing up, language, reading and communicating came easily, as it does for many. I was also fortunate in that I learned to read based on the principles of the alphabetic code (not currently taught in a systematic way today). I would devour books and I read to learn, as I still do today. But for many, it is not so easy. It is often difficult to understand or be empathetic to those who struggle with communicating until you witness the challenges yourself.
In my work over the past two decades, I have researched and provided policy advice relating to the intersect between education and training, skills, work, population and economic and social prosperity. I have explored factors that contribute to improving life outcomes, increasing productivity, economic growth and ultimately standards of living. Underpinning this research and policy advice has always been the need to improve educational attainment, including completing school and improving literacy and numeracy to achieve social mobility.
While I understood and advocated for the need to improve educational attainment, I had never given much thought to how people become literate and the role of language and communication in that process. It wasn’t until I had my son, now 11, who has DLD and Apraxia of Speech, that I truly became knowledgeable about both the prevalence of language and communication disorders and the lack of awareness of these challenges as well as the need to effectively support people with DLD to communicate and become literate.
As a mum, it is really tough to watch the everyday struggle my son has, and the effort it takes him to express himself. I can literally see the cogs in his brain working so hard, wanting so much to tell us what he is thinking and feeling and then either celebrating his success with a reciprocal conversation or just giving him a hug when he finds it all too much.
Because of the widespread lack of awareness of DLD and the challenges associated with DLD, children with DLD can have an extremely difficult time in education. Children with DLD can be labelled as inattentive, poor listeners, or with behavioural issues, and will be condemned to a life of underachievement if they remain undiagnosed and unsupported.
Fortunately, children (as well as adolescents and adults) with DLD can be supported with appropriate intervention by skilled speech and language practitioners and teachers.
So, if you know a child, or a student, or someone you care about, who appears to have difficulty understanding or expressing themselves in spoken language, or is a bit quiet and not as engaged in conversation as others, is slower to learn to read and write, don’t wait for them to ‘catch up’ or write them off as not very bright, talk to their parents, their teachers, a speech and language pathologist or educational psychologist and pursue an assessment for Developmental Language Disorder.
There is no shame in asking for help. A diagnosis is so important to inform not just specific and targeted speech and language therapeutic intervention, but appropriate educational adjustments in the classroom.
A child’s life could be so much brighter if we not only increase the awareness of DLD but provide the intervention required to develop effective communication and literacy skills.
Dr Lisa Denny is a workforce demographer, and adjunct associate professor at the Institute for Social Change, University of Tasmania. Here she writes for the Colleagues @ The Heart of Literacy initiative which this year is focusing on DLD. Find out more at . This article was first published in The Mercury on 16th October 2020.