Most infants or toddlers can understand what you're saying well before they can clearly
talk. As they get older and their communication skills develop, most children learn
how to put their feelings into words.
But some children have language disorders. They may have:
Receptive language disorder. A child has trouble understanding words that they hear and read.
Expressive language disorder. A child has trouble speaking with others and expressing thoughts and feelings.
A child will often have both disorders at the same time. Such disorders are often
diagnosed in children between the ages of 3 and 5.
A language disorder can be frustrating for parents, teachers, and also for the child.
Without diagnosis and treatment, children with a receptive-expressive disorder may
not do well in school. They may also misbehave because of their frustration over not
being able to communicate. But language disorders are a common problem in children,
and can be treated.
What causes language disorders?
Language disorders can have many possible causes. A child's language disorder is often
linked to a medical condition or disability such as:
A brain disorder like autism
A brain injury or a brain tumor
Birth defects such as Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or cerebral palsy
Problems in pregnancy or birth, such as poor nutrition, fetal alcohol syndrome, early
(premature) birth, or low birth weight
Sometimes language disorders have a family history. In many cases, the cause is not
It's important to know that learning more than one language does not cause language
disorders in children. But a child with language disorder will have the same problems
in all languages.
What is receptive language disorder?
Children with receptive language disorder have trouble understanding language. They
have trouble grasping the meaning of words they hear and see. This includes people
talking to them and words they read in books or on signs. It can cause problems with
learning and needs to be treated as early as possible.
A child with receptive language disorder may have trouble:
Understanding what people say
Understanding concepts and ideas
Understanding what he or she reads
Learning new words
What is expressive language disorder?
A child with expressive language disorder has trouble using language. The child may
be able to understand what other people say. But he or she has trouble when trying
to talk, and often can’t express what he or she is feeling and thinking. This doesn’t
only affect trouble speaking words. The disorder can affect both written and spoken
language. And children who use sign language can still have trouble expressing themselves.
A child with expressive language disorder may have trouble:
Diagnosing and treating language disorders
Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's language use, and look
at his or her medical history. Your child may have a physical exam and hearing tests.
Your healthcare provider will likely refer your child to a speech-language pathologist
(SLP). This is a specialist who can help diagnose and treat your child.
An SLP will evaluate your child during play. This may be done in a group setting with
other children. Or it may be done one-on-one with your child. The SLP will look at
how your child speaks, listens, follows directions, understands the names of things,
repeats phrases or rhymes, and performs in other language activities.
To treat your child, the SLP will help him or her to learn to relax and enjoy communicating
through play. The SLP will use different age-appropriate methods to help your child
with language and communication. The SLP will talk with your child and may:
Use toys, books, objects, or pictures to help with language development
Have your child do activities, such as craft projects
Have your child practice asking and answering questions
The SLP will explain more about the methods that are best for your child's condition.
How you can help your child
If you think your child might have a language disorder, talk with his or her healthcare
provider right away. Research has shown that children who begin therapy early have
the best outcome. Make sure that the SLP that you choose is certified by the American
The SLP will guide your child's treatment. But it's important to know that parents
play a critical role. You will likely need to work with your child in order to help
him or her with language use and understanding. The SLP will also talk with caregivers
and teachers to help them work with your child.
Ask the SLP what you should be doing at home to help the process. The SLP may advise
simple activities such as:
Reading and talking to your child to help him or her learn words
Listening and responding when your child talks
Encouraging your child to ask and answer questions
Pointing out words on signs
Online Medical Reviewers:
- Adler, Liora C., MD
- Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH
We do not treat children with language disorders as their main diagnosis; however, we do treat children who have developmental disabilities as well as language disorders.
Behavior Treatment Services - Provides assessment and short-term treatment for children and teens with developmental delay or disability and challenging behaviors.
Community Consultation Program - Provides technical assistance, training, and continuing education to schools, community and state agencies that provide services to children with learning and behavioral challenges.
Crisis Intervention Program - Provides services to individuals with a developmental or intellectual disability living in Monroe County with significant behavioral difficulties.
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation - Provides outpatient evaluation and intense and targeted therapy programs for children and teens.
Speech Pathology - Meets the needs of children who have difficulties with speech, communication, oral-motor control, and feeding/swallowing.
You can find resources for language disorders in our Resource Directory!