A Common Childhood Disability Hidden in Plain Sight

October 10, 2019
Dr. Tiffany Hogan with her OWL research group.
Dr. Tiffany Hogan with students assisting the OWL research group.

Dr. Tiffany Hogan and her research team are working to raise public awareness of Developmental Language Disorder, a condition which most people have never heard of.

When Tiffany Hogan tells parents their child has dyslexia, a condition that makes it difficult to read words on a page, they are understandably concerned. So they begin educating themselves by buying books, looking at advocacy websites, and seeking qualified tutors to help their child. When she tells parents their child has a condition called DLD, it’s another story.

“Almost all of them have never heard of it,” says Dr. Hogan. More often than not, neither has their child’s teacher. Or their neighbors. Or their friends. That’s because DLD, or Developmental Language Disorder, is virtually unknown outside of the academic world, despite being as common among children as its well-known cousin, dyslexia, which has become a household word over the past few decades.

“I once wrote in a paper that DLD is a great mystery because these children have difficulty learning and understanding language for no obvious reason, something that comes with ease for most children,” says Hogan, a professor in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders and director of the Speech and Language Literacy (SAiL) Lab. “Unfortunately, there are no organizations solely devoted to educating the public about DLD and few informational books or websites where people can learn about it.”

Hogan is working to change that. Her team of researchers is testing about 700 kindergarten students in several elementary schools in and around Boston, using a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The five-year study aims to raise public awareness of the condition and prevent students with DLD from slipping through the cracks.

Only about a third of DLD students are identified or are being treated in schools, despite it affecting about two students in every typical classroom of 24. Problem is, the condition is difficult to spot because many students with DLD can read just fine but have trouble following and understanding what they’ve heard or what they’ve read. “It’s harder to see what a child can’t comprehend, so it’s often missed,” Hogan says. “Dyslexia isn’t as hidden—it’s more obvious because a child can’t read printed words.” And to further complicate things, she says about half of students with DLD also have dyslexia.

Unlike students with ADHD, children with DLD don’t typically act out or fidget in class, the kinds of actions that command a teacher’s attention. Instead, they may be quiet or look like they’re daydreaming when, in fact, they may be trying really hard to follow the classroom conversation. Often, they’re mislabeled as lazy.

Hogan is leading a team of collaborators—Julie Wolter from the University of Montana, Jessie Ricketts from Royal Holloway, University of London, and Yaacov Petscher from Florida State University—to track the students with DLD from kindergarten to second grade.

The goal? To make DLD as familiar as dyslexia with the help of a new informative website called DLDandME, and working with teachers and parents to help reduce the number of kids with DLD who are overlooked. “This grant, this work, it’s the right time, with the right team,” she says. “I could not be more excited.”

- By Lory Hough