Posted in Cognition & Executive Function

What’s in a Label?

ASD, ADHD, SLI, DLD…the list goes on! All of these acronyms represent a label which may be associated with a child receiving speech and language services (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Specific Language Impairment, Developmental Language Disorder, etc.). It can seem overwhelming to navigate an abundance of diagnostic labels, and this is especially true in the domain of language. Currently, there is no agreed upon label used to universally describe children with unexplained language problems.

In a review of terminology used for this population, Professor Dorothy Bishop at the University of Oxford found that 132 different terms were being used to describe children with unexplained language problems. Consistency and consensus across professionals regarding which label to use to describe children with unexplained language disorders could allow the focus to shift to how to best serve and support this population, rather than how to label it.

Some may argue that a label isn’t needed in order to set goals and establish an intervention plan for a child with a significant language problem. However, establishing diagnostic criteria for what constitutes a significant language problem allows clinicians to determine who needs help and researchers to determine which children to study in interventions. Professor Bishop’s review also provided a table with some interesting pros and cons for diagnostic labels:

Table taken from Bishop (2014), cited below.

It’s difficult for me to be vehemently for or against diagnostic labels, because there are valid points on both sides of the argument. In terms of labels being detrimental, I can certainly see how a label can be associated with stigma or negatively influence the construction of a child’s identity. However, when conducting a mental “risks vs. benefits” analysis, I think that if a label allows a child and his or her family to receive the supports they need it is worth the potential adjustment to the label. A label may actually serve as a source of relief for parents, since it may finally explain the difficulties encountered by their child! Our role as an SLP doesn’t stop at providing services for the child; in situations where children, parents, or other caregivers may find it difficult to accept a diagnostic label which is now part of the child’s identity, we must support families and provide them with the appropriate resources to move forward.

For more information, check out these additional resources:

Bishop, D. V. M. (2014). Ten questions about terminology for children with unexplained language problems. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 49(4), 381-415.

Categories of Exceptionalities for Special Education in Ontario:


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