Language Disorders: The Adolescent to Adult Years

The tall, lanky teenager stands alone on the verandah of the high school, watching some of his classmates outside laughing at some secret joke. Another classmate passes nearby and smiles, calls out a form of greeting to him and makes a crude gesture. He nods but does not smile or answer. The classmate looks puzzled, shrugs and walks past. Our teenager turns and walks into the library, where he spends most of his recess time, and looks for the librarian to offer his usual help.

Social Difficulties associated with Primary Language Disorders

Adolescence is a challenging and confusing time for most children. For the adolescent with a serious or, sometimes, mild primary language disorder it is often a very lonely period. This is particularly the case when the social, language and learning difficulties which are the defining characteristics of the disability have not received the kind and extent of attention they require during the earlier years of the child’s development and education.

The loneliness which language disordered adolescents often experience is not the result of social rejection by peers because of expressive difficulties. It stems from the nature of the disability itself and the way this affects the child’s ability to deal with the social relationship demands of adolescence.

During early childhood and the primary school years, the social difficulties of the language disordered child are present and can be acutely distressing for the child but, because of the different social demands of childhood and adolescence, it is in the latter period that the emotional impact is usually greatest. This impact can be substantially reduced in both adolescence and childhood if the nature of the disability is understood and addressed as soon as possible.

If these social relationship needs of the child are not addressed before they reach adolescence, relationship patterns may be set for a lifetime! Speech and language needs must have the priority focus in therapy and teaching but they should not be the sole focus. Language disordered children need instruction in how to learn language and social behaviour, not merely expose them to what should be learned.

Language disordered children learn very little though just exposure to appropriate language and behaviour because of their difficulties in inferencing, that is, working out the rules of language and social behaviour and how to apply these in other situations. They do not use language or behaviour appropriately as a result of just hearing and seeing other people talking and behaving normally. They must be taught the structures and the rules of use, both for language and social behaviour.

The learning environment has to be ‘scaled down’ to the level where the language and social interactions impose demands which the child can be extended to meet. With young children, the patterns of communication and social behaviour need to be ‘over-learned’ by frequent repetition and explicit instruction in what to say and do. This builds a firm base of confidence in his or her words and behaviour, to think flexibly and logically by evaluating options and their potential consequences, to look at things from different points of view and to plan communications and social behaviour.

This structured social-learning environment and the skills needed to cope effectively at a later stage in a wider, more disorganised social and learning environment. The aim of the structured ‘scaled down’ environment is not to provide a cotton wool situation which protects the child from social challenges but to guide and support the adolescent from dependence to independence through developing appropriate, controlled social challenges which build confidence.

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