What is receptive language disorder?

Receptive language disorder is one of three types of language disorder. People who have it often don’t understand what others say. They struggle with the meaning of language and may respond in ways that don’t make sense. But their challenges aren’t related to hearing loss or intelligence.

Snapshot: What receptive language disorder is

Receptive language disorder is a lifelong condition that affects how people process spoken and written language.

People with receptive language disorder struggle to understand words and connect them with ideas. So they don’t always “get” the meaning of what others are saying.

That can make it hard to connect with people, whether it’s at school, at work, or in the community. And it can cause people to withdraw socially.

People with receptive language disorder may also have trouble organizing their thoughts. That can happen with both speaking and writing.

Receptive language disorder isn’t caused by hearing issues. It’s also not the result of speaking other languages. But those are situations that can also make it hard to understand the meaning of what people say.

It’s important to know that language disorders aren’t a matter of intelligence. People who have them are just as smart as other people. But difficulties with language can sometimes keep people from showing their full intelligence. And that can be very frustrating and upsetting.

Receptive language disorder signs and symptoms

Language disorders are usually developmental. They start in early childhood. Kids can show signs of receptive language disorder as early as Pre-K. (People can also get these disorders later in life after a brain injury or illness. This is known as aphasia.) 

Here are some common signs of receptive language disorder:

  • Tuning out when people talk

  • Trouble following directions

  • Trouble answering questions

  • Interrupting people who are speaking

  • Asking people to repeat what they say

  • Giving answers that are “off”

  • Misunderstanding what’s said

  • Not getting jokes

People with receptive language disorder can also come across as withdrawn or shy. They may not respond when people speak to them because they didn’t understand what was said. Or they didn’t tune in to it to begin with.

Possible causes of receptive language disorder

There’s no one cause of receptive language disorder. And many times, there’s no known reason for these challenges. But in some cases, they may be related to certain conditions and situations. These include autism, birth defects, or problems in pregnancy or birth. And later in life, they can be caused by brain injury or illness.

How receptive language disorder is diagnosed

To get a diagnosis, you need to be evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. These specialists may work in schools, clinics, or in private practice.

Receptive language disorder can be diagnosed at any age. But the sooner it’s identified, the better.

For parents and caregivers: Explore more resources about supporting your child with receptive language disorder.

For educators: Explore evidence-based teaching strategies, like using nonverbal signals and when-then sentences.


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