Learning Disabilities

What Is a Language Processing Disorder?

Expressive and receptive language disorders impact a person’s ability to understand what others are saying, or translate even the simplest thoughts into words. Learn the facts about these complex and surprisingly common conditions.

Girl with language processing disorder whispering secrets to a sneaky pup
Girl whispering to doggo. V. good secret keeper, 13/10

Language Processing Disorders, Explained

You know the feeling: You’re in the middle of telling a great story when suddenly the word you’re looking gets stuck “on the tip of your tongue.” Or you’re 10 minutes into a conversation before you realize you haven’t taken in a word the other person is saying. For most people, these brief mental slipups can be annoying, but for someone with an expressive or receptive language disorder, they can be a constant reality. And the cumulative effect of a lifetime of communication difficulties can be devastating.

What is a language disorder? Simply put, it’s an impairment that affects the way someone communicates through spoken language. One person with a language disorder might find it difficult to speak extemporaneously or outline their thoughts clearly, while another person might struggle to understand what others are saying, to follow directions, or to maintain attention.

Language disorders are more common than you may think. Experts estimate that up to 5 percent of children in the United States have some type of language disorder — though many remain undiagnosed — and currently more than 1 million children are receiving special education specific to language disorders in the U.S. public school system.

If a language disorder isn’t caught early or is misdiagnosed, it can create wide-reaching complications in a person’s life — complications that often extend from childhood to adulthood. Social situations, for example, can be challenging for someone with either a receptive or an expressive language disorder. Difficulties with self-expression or with comprehension of what others are saying can cause someone to withdraw or endure being ostracized. In severe situations, a child with a language disorder may become so frustrated at his inability to make himself understood that he lashes out at adults or other children — earning him the label of “bully” or “problem child.”

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have a Language Processing Disorder?]

Types of Language Processing Disorders

There are two types of language disorders: expressive and receptive. People with expressive language disorders have a difficult time expressing their thoughts. Those with receptive language disorders struggle to understand what others are saying or to follow a conversation. It’s also possible to suffer from a combination of expressive and receptive language disorders.

Language disorders are most often developmental, like other learning disabilities. However, they can also start to manifest as a result of a neurological illness or a traumatic event affecting the brain, such as a stroke or a head injury. When language disorders are caused by specific damage to the brain, they’re referred to as aphasia.

Symptoms of Language Processing Disorders

While language disorders vary widely from person to person, the condition usually follows general developmental patterns and guidelines. For starters, when a child is born with a language disorder, he or she is often a “late talker,” with other symptoms usually appearing before age 4. Though language disorders are sometimes diagnosed in those with intellectual disabilities, they most often appear in those with average or above-average intelligence — though those with language disorders may find they have trouble demonstrating that intelligence to the outside world.

If a language disorder is mild, its symptoms may be difficult to detect. The person may just appear a little “spacey” or even shy. Look for the following basic symptoms that may indicate a language disorder. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or your child, talk with your doctor or the staff at your child’s school.

Someone with an expressive language disorder will:

  • Have a limited vocabulary for their age
  • Use a lot of filler words like “um,” or use “stuff” and “things” instead of more specific words
  • Confuse verb tenses
  • Repeat phrases when telling a story or answering a question
  • Frequently say sentences that don’t make sense
  • Have trouble learning new words
  • Feel like words are constantly stuck “at the tip of their tongue”
  • Often seem frustrated by their inability to communicate thoughts

Someone with a receptive language disorder might:

  • Seem disinterested in conversations or social situations
  • Have difficulty following directions
  • Often misunderstand what is asked and answer or act inappropriately
  • Have difficulty getting jokes
  • Seem shy or withdrawn

If someone exhibits symptoms from both lists, it’s possible he or she has a combination expressive/receptive language disorder.

[What Do Language Processing Disorders Look Like in Adults?]

Diagnosing Language Processing Disorders

If you’ve noticed some of the above language processing disorder symptoms and think you or your child may have a language disorder, the next step is to get a professional evaluation. Language disorders can be frequently misdiagnosed — they are often misidentified as ADHD, autism, or even just “laziness” — so it’s important to work with someone who is familiar with speech and language development.

You have a few options. If you’re worried about a child who has yet to attend school, you can get a free evaluation through your state’s Early Intervention (EI) program. If a language disorder is identified, EI staff will help you develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which supports your child until age 3. An IFSP lays out what services your child should receive and what parents and specialists expect the progress to look like. Parents are a key component in developing and executing IFSPs, so educate yourself and prepare to advocate on your child’s behalf.

If your child has already started school by the time you notice language delays, you can seek support from the public school system — even if your child is enrolled in private school. You can formally request that the school conduct an evaluation with a speech therapist at no cost to you. If the school feels there is no need for an evaluation or that your child is developing within normal ranges, they can deny your request. If this happens, you will receive a written notification that the school has denied your request along with information on your options. At this point, you can request a hearing to appeal the school’s decision or work with a private speech and language specialist. Even if the school provides an evaluation, you have the right to work with a private specialist if you choose. This option is often more expensive, but it does offer advantages, such as more flexible scheduling and individualized attention.

If you suspect you or another adult has a language disorder — whether developmental or as the result of a brain injury — it’s still best to act quickly. It’s important to seek a diagnosis from a professional trained in language disorders; if you’re unsure where to start, your primary care physician should be able to refer you. If cost is an issue, consider looking into local universities, which may provide free or low-cost evaluations for adults as part of their speech-language training program.

Most speech therapists test for language disorders in similar ways. It’s important for you or your child to be tested in the language with which you’re most comfortable — even if it’s not the language you speak on a daily basis. Difficulty with a second language is not necessarily a sign of a language disorder. A pediatric speech therapist should interact with and observe your child in various situations, as well as interview you to determine if your communication skills may be contributing to a child’s language delays. For an adult diagnosis, your speech therapist may interview your partner or other close family members to get a sense of how your language skills affect your interactions. They may also try different therapy methods, to gauge how you or your child responds and begin to determine an effective treatment strategy.

Treatment Options for Language Processing Disorders

If the speech therapist finds that you or your child has a language disorder, she will work with you to set up a treatment plan, which usually includes speech therapy. If the language disorder has negatively affected the patient’s social and academic growth in dramatic ways — which is more likely the older they are at the time of diagnosis — it’s possible that psychotherapy will be recommended as well.

Starting speech therapy early is the best way to handle language disorders, but if you think either you or your child was delayed in getting the help you need, don’t despair. Countless studies have shown that as many as 70 percent of patients respond to speech therapy, and while the rate of success is higher for young children, most older children and even adults achieve good results when working with a skilled speech therapist.

[How to Treat Language Processing Disorders]

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