Children need to understand spoken language before they can use language to express themselves.
A child with receptive language delay has difficulties with understanding what is said to them. Another name for receptive language delay is language comprehension deficit. The symptoms vary between children but, generally, problems with language comprehension begin before the age of three years.
In most cases, children with a receptive language problem also have an expressive language delay, which means they have trouble using spoken language.
There is no standard set of symptoms that indicates receptive language delay, as it varies from one child to the next. However, symptoms may include:
• not seeming to listen when they are spoken to
• appearing to lack interest when storybooks are read to them
• difficulty understanding the meaning of words and sentences
• difficulty remembering all the words in a sentence to make sense of what has been said
• inability to understand complicated sentences
• inability to follow verbal instructions; especially if the instruction is long or complicated.
The cause of receptive language delay is often unknown, but is thought to consist of a few factors working in combination, such as:
• genetic susceptibility (family history of receptive language delay)
• limited exposure to hearing language in their day-to-day environment
• general developmental and cognitive (thinking) abilities.
Receptive language delay is often associated with developmental disorders such as autism or Down syndrome. (Although for some children, difficulty with language is the only developmental problem they experience.)
Receptive language delay may also be related to:
• hearing impairment – due to decreased exposure to language
• vision impairment – due to the absence of cues such as facial expression and gestures
• attention disorders – due to difficulties in attending fully to what is being said.
Assessment needs to pinpoint the child’s particular areas of difficulty, especially when they do not respond to spoken language. Diagnosis may include:
• hearing tests (by an audiologist) to check whether the language problems are caused by hearing impairment and to establish whether or not the child is able to pay attention to sound and language (auditory processing assessment)
• testing the child’s language comprehension (by a speech pathologist) and comparing the results to the expected skill level for the child’s age
• close observation of the child in a variety of different settings while they interact with a range of people
• assessment by a psychologist to help identify any associated cognitive problems
• vision tests to check for vision impairment
Treatment options for receptive language delay may include:
• speech-language therapy - one-on-one or as part of a group, or both, depending on the needs of the child
• providing information to families so that they can facilitate language growth at home
• special education classes at school
• integration support at preschool or school in cases of severe difficulty
• behaviour management (only if there are also significant behavioural problems).