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Language Processing Disorder and Autism: Signs and Solutions

September 8, 2023

Sarah has been concerned about her autistic daughter’s inability to understand, formulate, and use language effectively. She decided to talk to a doctor about her worries; that was the first time she heard about a language processing disorder. “What does it mean?” she thought, and “What can I do to help my child?”

Sarah’s daughter is one of the many children on the spectrum who face the challenges of a language processing disorder. In this article, we’ll explore different types of this disorder and some of their signs, symptoms, and ways you can help your little one overcome these issues.

Language Processing Disorder and Autism: Signs and Solutions

What is a Language Processing Disorder?

To get an idea of what people with a language processing disorder may experience, the example of arriving in a foreign country is often used. You may undertake an introductory course in the local language, and you may have enough vocabulary to get by — but join a party of locals, conversing fast with a few colloquial expressions thrown in, and you can imagine yourself wide-eyed and only capable of producing a: “Huh?”

Alternatively, language practitioners say that the frustrating feeling of not being able to name a word, even though it’s on the tip of your tongue, is a constant reality for those struggling with language processing.

A language processing disorder is characterized by difficulty in receiving, recognizing, and understanding language. This kind of language disorder could also involve deficits in language expression.

A person with a language processing disorder may, therefore, have trouble processing receptive language (what others say). Still, it may also affect how that person expresses themselves (expressive language).

People with a language processing disorder (LPD) have no difficulties with hearing, intellect, or even certain aspects of language; their deficits lie in the processing of language, in other words, the impairment is related to how their brain processes or interprets language.

Autism and Language Processing Disorders

When looking for information to help your child process language in a way that facilitates better social communication, you may find the similarities between autism and a language processing disorder a bit unsettling.

You may read about children who were diagnosed with autism because their language processing deficits were mistakenly attributed to an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). On the other hand, children who display borderline autism symptoms may be (mistakenly) diagnosed with a language disorder or auditory processing disorder, as their symptoms appear too mild to fit the criteria for ASD.

A study reviewing the atypical sensory-based features of autism suggests atypical brain activity in processing auditory stimuli for those on the spectrum. The study brought up some interesting points concerning autistic behaviors and how this may relate to auditory processing. The author’s example of a child with autism covering their ears to bening sounds like the vacuum cleaner introduces the authors’ question of whether such unusual behavior may be a cause of atypical auditory processing.

This again points to the importance of seeking professional diagnosis by an expert who takes all factors and your child’s history into consideration — in the above example, the child covering his/her ears to the sound of the vacuum cleaner could have a sensory processing disorder, autism or an auditory processing disorder (or even all three).

A diagnosis of ASD or a language processing disorder should only be made by a professional. This is crucial as the symptoms of language disorders can mimic those of ASD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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The Interplay Between Autism and LPD

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that impacts various areas of development, including communication and social interaction. Many individuals on the spectrum may experience varying degrees of language processing difficulties, including:

  • Auditory Processing Issues: Children with autism and a language processing disorder may struggle with processing auditory information, such as understanding spoken language, discerning different tones of voice, and filtering background noise.
  • Word Retrieval Challenges: Some children may show difficulty in retrieving and recalling words during conversations. This often leads to frequent pauses, searching for the right words, and even resorting to alternative expressions.
  • Literal Interpretation: Some children with autism and a language processing disorder tend to interpret language literally, leading to misunderstandings and challenges in grasping idioms, metaphors, and abstract language.
  • Sentence Structure and Syntax: It’s common for language processing difficulties to affect the ability to comprehend complex sentence structures and grammar rules. This makes it difficult for children on the spectrum to follow conversations or instructions.

Types of Language Processing Disorders

There are several types of language processing disorders, each affecting different aspects of language comprehension. The most common types include auditory processing disorder, expressive language disorder, and receptive language disorder.

Auditory Processing Disorder

Auditory processing disorder involves difficulties in accurately processing and interpreting auditory information. Children on the spectrum may struggle to distinguish between sounds, follow spoken instructions, or filter out background noises.

Children with central auditory processing disorder may have deficits relating to the processing of specific auditory stimulus, for example in a class with a lot of background noise their auditory processing deficits may render it impossible to distinguish noise from speech.

Only an audiologist can diagnose APD, and parents should consult with one if they suspect their child may have deficits in processing auditory input. Your child may show anxiety when he/she has to listen when there is background noise (parents often see this as “hearing difficulty” in noisy environments), he/she may have difficulty following verbal directions, or you observe how most of his/her auditory deficits disappear when a room quiets down.

Expressive Language Disorder

Expressive language disorder is characterized by challenges in conveying thoughts, ideas, and emotions through speech, often found in children with autism. They may have a limited vocabulary, struggle with grammar and sentence structure, and struggle to initiate or hold conversations.

Receptive Language Disorder

Receptive language disorder is related to difficulties in understanding and processing language. Children may struggle to understand spoken or written language, leading to misunderstandings and confusion.

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Signs and Symptoms of LPD

Signs and symptoms of language processing disorders can vary depending on the specific type and severity of the disorder. Here are some common signs associated with different aspects of language processing:

  • Difficulties in Vocabulary Acquisition: Autistic children with language processing disorder often have a limited vocabulary for their age. They may find it challenging to learn new words or remember their meanings.
  • Challenges in sentence structure: Children on the spectrum may struggle to form grammatically correct sentences. They may struggle with using appropriate tenses and organizing words.
  • Impaired social communication: It’s common for language processing difficulties to affect social interactions. Children may struggle initiating conversations, responding appropriately, or understanding non-literal language.

If you suspect language processing difficulties to be the cause of your child’s social communication challenges, look out for behaviors like:

  • Limited vocabulary and difficulty acquiring new words
  • Frustrated in expressing themselves, emotions, or ideas
  • Use of many fillers like “uh” as he/she struggles to find the right words
  • He or she may be able to draw or point to an object but struggle to name it

Causes and Contributing Factors

Causes and contributing factors of LPD can be multifaceted and often involve a combination of genetics, neurological, environmental, and developmental factors. Although they can vary from individual to individual, here are some key ones that may contribute to the development of these disorders:

  • Neural connectivity differences: Research suggests that connectivity and brain structure differences may contribute to language processing challenges in children with autism.
  • Genetic predisposition: There is evidence to suggest that genetics play a crucial role in language development. Children with a family history of language disorders may be more susceptible to this condition.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to certain environmental factors during critical periods of development may influence the emergence and severity of a language processing disorder.

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Diagnosis and Assessment: Language Processing Disorder

Diagnosis and assessment of language disorders involves a comprehensive evaluation conducted by qualified professionals. There are three most common types of approaches: multidisciplinary approach, speech and language evaluation, and neurodevelopmental testing.

Multidisciplinary Approach

Diagnosing language processing disorders in the context of autism requires a comprehensive assessment involving speech-language pathologists, psychologists, and other professionals.

Speech and Language Evaluation

A thorough evaluation of a child’s speech and language skills helps identify specific areas of difficulty, allowing for tailored intervention strategies.

Neurodevelopmental Testing

Neurodevelopmental assessments can provide insights into the underlying neurological factors contributing to the development of language processing disorders.

Strategies for Intervention

Intervention strategies for language processing disorders are designed to address the specific challenges an individual faces in understanding and using language. These strategies should be tailored to the child’s needs. They often include speech therapy, augmentative and alternative communication, and social communication interventions.

Speech Therapy

Speech therapy plays an important role in improving language skills. Therapists work on enhancing vocabulary, sentence structure, and communication strategies, sometimes using robotics as assistive technology.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

For children with severe language processing disorders, AAC methods like communication boards or electronic devices can aid in effective communication.

Social Communication Interventions

Effective communication is crucial for building relationships and participating in social activities. Interventions focused on improving social skills and communication can help children with autism better engage in conversations and understand social cues.

Supporting Your Child With a Language Processing Disorder

Supporting your autistic child with their language processing disorder can be crucial in helping them overcome challenges and thrive in their communication and learning. Here are some strategies that can help your little one:

  • Creating structured environments: Structured and predictable environments can reduce anxiety and help children communicate more comfortably.
  • Visual aids and timetables: Visual aids, such as schedules and cues, can assist in conveying information and improving understanding.
  • Encouraging peer interactions: Encouraging children to interact with their peers fosters social interaction and provides opportunities to practice language skills.

The Importance of Early Intervention

Early intervention is crucial for addressing language processing disorders. Identifying and addressing challenges at a young age can significantly improve outcomes and create a safe environment for development.


While language processing difficulties are almost always present in people with autism, these difficulties are not exclusive to an autism spectrum disorder. Language processing disorders and auditory processing disorders can exist together or independently — parents who observe any sort of language disorder should not hesitate to have their child diagnosed by a professional.


Q: Can LPD coexist with other conditions like Autism Spectrum Disorder? 

A: Yes, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have coexisting conditions like LPD. This can complicate their communication difficulties, but addressing both conditions simultaneously is crucial for effective support.

Q: Is LPD a lifelong condition? 

A: While LPD can present challenges throughout life, early intervention and consistent support can significantly improve language processing skills over time.

Q: Are there any medications to treat LPD? 

A: Currently, there are no medications specifically designed to treat LPD. Interventions typically involve speech-language therapy and tailored educational strategies.

Q: How can parents create a language-rich environment at home? 

A: Reading aloud, engaging in conversations, and exposing children to various language-rich activities create an environment that supports safe and efficient language development.

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