Having a child with a developmental delay can be a very scary experience for a parent.
In a culture that values academic success more and more highly and measures it at younger and younger ages, any type of deficiency in academic ability can become blown out of proportion.
On the other hand, the impulse to provide a child the highest quality education is a very natural parental impulse. So long as it does not become unreasonable, taking a keen interest in the child's intellectual development from a young age is one of the most important parts of a parent's job.
Unfortunately, however, even parents with the best intentions often feel ill-equipped to help their children overcome language abnormalities. Every child is different, and it can often times feel impossible to truly understand the difference between a slight difficulty in a serious delay.
For example, when a slight speech impediment keeps your child from being able to read fluently, it could perhaps be nothing more than an innocuous (and undeniably cute) little developmental hiccup. That same speech impediment, though, might also mask a delay in reading ability that could potentially lead to serious consequences down the road.
In this context, it becomes important to understand the differences between the different types of developmental disorders in the realm of reading, speech, and language.
Let’s take a look at these three realms specifically, with an eye to understand the differences between the three, how they are diagnosed, and what you should do for your child.
The Difference Between Speaking, Reading, and Using Language
At first glance, speaking, reading and using language all seem to be different sides of the same coin. But upon closer review, the relationship between the three is strikingly complex, particularly during the ages in which all three abilities begin to develop.
Specifically, most childhood language use disorders fall into three distinct diagnostic categories: language impairment, reading disability, and speech sound disorder.
Let's take a look at each of these individually.
With these three definitions in mind, two things become immediately apparent.
First, it is clear that the three different developmental language disorders are distinct. A child could have one of the three without having the other two.
Second, it is clear that diagnosing a child with one of the three disorders independently of the other two would not be straightforward, particularly at certain ages.
Let’s take a look at this second point more specifically, on the difficulties with diagnosis.
Difficulties with Diagnosis
Speech language pathologists often have a difficult task ahead of them when trying to diagnose a young child who clearly has language difficulties.
For example, it would be impossible to ascertain if a child has a reading disability before they have been instructed how to read. However, the very act of instructing a child how to read might be difficult and/or delayed if a child had language impairment.
Furthermore, as we mentioned in the introduction above, a child's difficulties in producing spoken language while reading (caused by a speech sound disorder) could potentially cloud a parent’s ability to judge whether their child is developing reading skills at the appropriate pace.
To be even more specific, consider the possible causes for a speech sound disorder, as presented in an article called “Relations Among Speech, Language, and Reading Disorders,” by researchers Bruce Pennington and Dorothy Bishop.
The authors write that causes for a speech sound disorder could include difficulties processing sounds, motor problems with planning and producing the movements necessary for speech, brain issues involving the mapping between motor planning and speech production, difficulties identifying the differences between similar sounding speech patterns, or some combination of any of these causes.
So in summary, not only could a child have language impairment without a reading disorder, a speech sound disorder without language impairment, or any other combination of these three, but it is also difficult to separate out the different causes that would prompt one of the three diagnosis.
And as if all of this complexity wasn't enough, the issue can be further complicated by introducing other developmental or cognitive disorders. In the case of ADHD, the authors explicitly state:
“One can readily imagine that a child might appear to be inattentive or hyperactive in the classroom because of the frustration elicited by difficulties with reading rather than as a consequence of the neurocognitive difficulties that are typically associated with ADHD in the absence of [reading disability].” ~Pennington & Bishop, 299
The Takeaway for You and Your Child
Despite the occasionally overwhelming complexity, any experienced parent knows that children are very resilient. The way in which they constantly grow and improve despite obstacles never ceases to amaze.
A parent's response when faced with facing a situation of a child struggling with some type of language difficulty should not be to run away from the complexity and give up. It can be easy to settle on the quickest and easiest diagnosis and hide behind that label.
And while a close relationship with a trusted, capable speech-language pathologist can certainly go a long way towards getting your child the attention he or she deserves, in the end it is the parents that know best what specific difficulties the child has, and what they can do in response.
No matter the situation, there are always activities and exercises that you can do with your child that will hone in on the specific problems they have.
As with all things in parenting, the more individual attention you can give your child, the more able they will be to overcome individual difficulties and develop into healthy, thriving adults.
In the immortal words of Albert Einstein, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Pennington, B. F., & Bishop, D. V. (2009). Relations Among Speech, Language, and Reading Disorders. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 283-306.