Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a neurobiologically-based communication disorder that interferes with the development of language.

It’s a ‘hidden disability’. You can’t look at someone and see their DLD. But DLD has enormous knock-on effects.

For too many people with DLD, what you do see, over time, are the accruals of the disadvantages DLD causes: low attainment and employment, poverty, isolation, confusion, homelessness, crime, and ensuing mental health challenges.

DLD is common, affecting 7 per cent of Australians. That’s one in fourteen people – or two children in every classroom! It’s more common than autism, which affects around 1 per cent of Australians; and half again as common as ADHD, at around 5 per cent.

DLD has been called the most common childhood condition you’ve never heard of.

We want you to hear of it. So DLD Day is now on our calendar – part of a worldwide movement to raise awareness of DLD.

We also want you to understand DLD. You are sure to know several people with it. You have probably understood their situations in terms such as: struggled at school, slow to learn, a quiet guy, he can’t remember things well, man of few words, doesn’t listen. DLD may include all these characteristics. Assessing for DLD helps us accurately fit these experiences into a learning profile and show us the support responses we should make.

Here’s a scenario to help you feel something of what DLD might be like.

Imagine yourself in a land where the locals speak no English. You have some ‘phrasebook’ ability in their language. You can order food – though it helps if there are pictures. You can check-in at your hotel – though when the transaction doesn’t go through, you are stuck. You can’t communicate that you have money in your account and need time to contact your bank. You try to communicate this. Blank stares. Your frustration and sense of indignity build. It shows in your face and posture. You raise your voice. (Natural enough responses to frustration.) The clerks discuss together taking furtive glances at you. You can’t understand what they say. Security arrives. You state your indignation. The guard speaks in long, firm sentences. But you can’t understand him. You’re excluded from all the meaning that is being exchanged about you. You feel stupid. But you know you’re not stupid. You just can’t understand this language nor use it back. You can’t write or point to words to help as you can’t read or write this language. Your exasperation about not knowing how to get your need across shows in a fidgety clenching fist. The security guard takes your arm and moves you on.

Now imagine this as your daily experience in your own culture… in your mother tongue. That’s DLD.

If this scenario was really happening for you, you’d probably have a mental monologue of self-talk to help you stay calm and think-through some solutions. But a mental monologue is done in language. People with DLD don’t have a ‘mental mother-tongue’ to fall back on in this way. Language itself is the very ability that is weak.

Language is a superpower inside our heads allowing us to think, take the perspective of others, manage complex meaning, and so much more.

People with DLD feel all the emotions that you did . (And do). But have more limited ability to process and reconcile those emotions in language. They can be much more readily left stuck with their feelings, awash on confused waters of only partly grasped, partly expressed meaning.

It’s not their fault. DLD brains are ‘wired’ differently. They can’t quickly and easily attach meaning to symbols (words – spoken, signed, written). This hidden disability is lifelong.

As society we are quick to explain such scenarios as ‘attitude’ or ‘behaviour’. Such responses unjustly blame the victim – just as you felt unjustly dealt with when the guard moved you on.

As society we should step-up and understand what is really going on.

DLD has long been known to speech pathologists, psychologists, and teachers. But known by other names and through the blur of widespread elitist cultural assumptions – ‘he’s slow’, ‘what would you expect from that family/neighbourhood’. But our scientifically based knowledge has been growing and we’ve been actively teasing out the erroneous assumptions. Now we confidently know a lot about DLD.

We know for sure that with intensive intervention at school and at any time in life, we can make BIG, functional differences to the lives of people with DLD – for their independent participation and choice, and for their positive contributions to community and the economy.

Delivering gold-standard support and intervention in schools, institutions and workplaces has a long way to go. But awareness is being raised and there is much peer-reviewed evidence about intervention that works for people with DLD. Intervention can make a powerful difference. It needs to be intensive, individually tailored, and functional.

For the individual, return on investment will come as increased skills and participation in meaning and life. For society, return on investment will come as increased literacy rates, increased social and workforce participation, and decreased social spending in the government departments that, later in life, pay for the accrued disadvantages of DLD – health, justice, housing.

How much more dignified and sensible it will be when this expenditure is made as abundant early intervention so those disadvantages don’t accrue dishonourably in the first place. By serving the enrichment, participation and dignity of our people, the same enrichment, participation and dignity will flow into our economy.


 A version of this article by Rosie Martin first appeared in Hobart’s The Mercury Newspaper on 13th October 2022.