As children develop, they naturally pick up techniques for communicating from their parents and their surroundings. As they get older, these techniques become more complex and evolve into both the spoken and unspoken ways of communicating that they will use throughout their lives. However, for children with developmental language disorders, these techniques can take a lot longer than normal to catch on, or aren’t learned at all.

Developmental language disorders are neuro-developmental in nature. They are present from very early in life and are caused by unusual development of the language centers of the brain. The speech and language problems caused by these disorders may be isolated and only affect language, but some children also have other challenges as well, including attention problems, clumsiness and academic problems at school.

As with any neurological disorder, developmental language disorders can affect children across a spectrum of severity. Some children may be slow to begin talking, but then catch up around 4 or 5 years old. Others do not catch up and also have problems understanding what others say when talking, and continue to have difficulty speaking themselves. Still others appear to develop speech normally, but gradually fall behind and don’t develop at the expected rate.

Like any learning disability, developmental language disorders can be present in any child, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, and regardless of their intelligence level. Children with developmental language orders don’t tend to get worse as they get older. Many show improvement, and with therapeutic intervention they often show marked improvement.

Symptoms of Language Disorders

Developmental language orders aren’t able to be diagnosed using laboratory testing or brain imaging, but rather are diagnosed by a pediatric speech pathologist or pediatric neuropsychologist based on their development along normal language development milestones. If a child is not using words or sentences as expected for their age, or if they are exhibiting unusual language problems, then they may have a language disorder. To isolate the type and severity of the specific language disorder, there are a number of standardized tests that test different aspects of the child’s ability to speak and understand others.

Common symptoms of developmental language disorders in babies include not making babbling sounds by 10 months of age and not using the index finger to point out objects by 18 months. Babies should also be able to understand many words or commands by 12 months without needing to rely on physical gestures by the parent. Toddlers should have at least a 50-word vocabulary and use two-word combinations by 2 years. At any age, children who do not use words to communicate, but rather simply repeat words they hear, may be suffering from speech and language problems.

In older children, symptoms may expand to include difficulty articulating particular consonants or vowels or stuttering. Verbal dyspraxia can be particularly frustrating for children who have it, as they may clearly understand what they want to say, but are simply unable to make the words come out.

What Are the Causes of Language Disorders?

While the underlying cause of developmental language disorders is unknown, there are a number of conditions that put a child at a marked increase of risk of having speech and language problems. Diseases and genetic disorders such as epilepsy, Down syndrome, or defects in brain development all can cause developmental language disorders. Additionally, there is evidence that these problems can also arise from complications in pregnancy such as a premature birth, prenatal exposure to drugs or toxins such as cocaine and cigarette smoke.

While there may be a genetic link to developmental language disorders, only a few specific genes have been associated with speech and language problems. In families where one family member has a developmental language disorder, there is a higher risk that another family member will also have a similar problem.

Treatments for Language Disorders

Developmental language disorders are not commonly treated with medication or surgery. Rather, speech therapy is the most effective method of correcting or mitigating the effects of speech and language problems. Extra support at school and at home is also an important component in helping children to overcome these problems.

Speech and language therapy by a pediatric speech pathologist is designed to improve the child’s communications skills and strengthen further development. In some cases, additional occupational therapy can help children who also have coordination problems with their mouth and tongue muscles. Some children can be taught sign language or the use of a communication device in situations where they aren’t able to speak.