Speech pathologist and child working on communication and language skills

A parent’s guide to developmental language disorder

In every Australian classroom, two children are likely to have developmental language disorder (DLD). October 16 marks International Developmental Language Disorder Awareness Day, which recognises the vital importance of language for social and emotional development and the people affected by DLD.

What is developmental language disorder?

Developmental language disorder is a life-long condition affecting language development that is characterised by difficulties with understanding and/or using spoken language that cannot be explained by another known health condition.

This neurodevelopmental condition used to be called ‘specific language impairment (SLI)’. However, the name was changed in 2017 after a group of international experts reached an agreement about how to identify childhood language impairments.

The term ‘language disorder’ was chosen for referring to language difficulties that impact a child’s ability to communicate, learn and participate in daily life. DLD is a subset of this group of disorders.

Children with DLD can have difficulty understanding what people are saying to them, and with expressing their needs, thoughts and feelings through spoken language.

The cause of DLD is not known, although it is probably linked to interacting genetic and environmental factors rather than having a single cause.

How common is DLD?

The exact incidence of DLD isn’t known. However, recent research shows that, on average, two students in every class of 30 (or about 7.5 percent) will be affected by DLD at a level severe enough to affect their academic progress.

Could my child have DLD?

Your child may be diagnosed with DLD if they have difficulty with talking and/or understanding language that impacts everyday life, such as their ability to communicate with family and peers or participate in home and community life.

Children with DLD have language issues that persist past the developmentally appropriate age.  These include:

  • Incorrect grammar – such as saying ‘he runned’ instead of ‘he ran’.
  • Having a limited vocabulary – children with DLD may use fewer words than their peers and take longer to learn new words.
  • Difficulty understanding instructions and stories in the classroom and peers in social settings.
  • Trouble using language in social situations – such as difficulty taking turns in a conversation or finding the right words to express their ideas and feelings.
  • Difficulties using correct speech sounds – such as saying ‘lellow’ for ‘yellow’.
Speech pathologist and child sitting at a table completing language therapy activities
Developmental language disorder can lead to difficulties communicating with peers

Because learning mainly happens through language, DLD can also impact your child’s schooling and ability to fulfil their academic potential.

According to the Queensland University of Technology’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group, students with DLD often have difficulty:

  • 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.

DLD can also lead to social isolation because it can be harder for your child to participate in conversations and activities with their peers. This may also make your child more vulnerable to bullying.

Watch a short video explaining DLD here or download a DLD fact sheet.

A DLD diagnosis may be missed as it can sometimes be misinterpreted as poor behaviour or inattention. Because they want so much to fit in at school, students may actively mask their language difficulties. For example,  they may display behaviours such as disruption and disengagement to draw attention away from their language issues.

As a lifelong condition, DLD also affects adults and may be linked with unemployment and economic disadvantage.

How is DLD diagnosed?

A diagnosis of DLD will involve an assessment with a speech-language pathologist, such as our experienced therapists here at Growing Early Minds. Other professionals, such as your child’s GP, paediatrician and educators, may also be involved.

The diagnosis will include ruling out other potential causes for your child’s language difficulties, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), sensory-neural hearing loss or a genetic condition such as Down syndrome.

For a diagnosis of DLD to be made, your child must have significant language deficits relative to expectations for their age, which cause problems with communication or learning in everyday life and are unlikely to resolve by age five.

How is DLD managed?

While there is no cure, support is available to help children with DLD develop skills and strategies to achieve their potential.

Your speech-language pathologist will conduct an assessment which includes taking a history of your child’s development and noting any health concerns. They will explore your child’s communication skills, looking for strengths as well as challenges. Consideration will be made of your family situation and you and your child’s goals.

Next, in consultation with you, your speech-language pathologist will create a plan for achieving those goals.

This will include a tailored speech therapy program, along with strategies to build your capacity to support your child’s language development. If your child is at school, it may also include working with teachers on strategies to support your child in the classroom.

Your speech-language pathologist will monitor your child’s progress and adjust the program as needed to suit changing goals and developmental stages.

Our dedicated speech-language pathologists at Growing Early Minds are all certified practising members of Speech Pathology Australia. They are experienced in working with children who have complex needs, developmental delay or disability (including autism) and who have experienced trauma.

Find out more on our speech language pathology page, get in touch on 1800 436 436  or message us at support@growingearlyminds.org.au.


  1. https://research.qut.edu.au/selb/explainer-what-is-developmental-language-disorder/
  2. https://www.rcslt.org/speech-and-language-therapy/clinical-information/developmental-language-disorder#
  3. https://www.mcri.edu.au/sites/default/files/media/documents/cres/cre-cl_policy_brief_2_dld_public_health.pdf
  4. https://www.sydney.edu.au/medicine-health/news-and-events/2019/10/17/raising-awareness-of-developmental-language-disorders.html
  5. https://ahha.asn.au/system/files/docs/publications/evidence_brief_no_20._developmental_language_disorder.pdf
  6. https://radld.org/
  7. https://www.acamh.org/topic/developmental-language-disorder/

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