Language Processing Disorder in Adults

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Have you ever met an adult who asks others to repeat themselves often, or frequently has trouble verbalizing their own thoughts? This person may be suffering from a language processing disorder (LPD). Learn about the cause and symptoms of LPD and strategies for working with adults with LPD.

What Is Language Processing Disorder?

While talking with a colleague, Nelson knows what he wants to say, but he has difficulty verbalizing it. Nelson also has trouble understanding some of the things that his boss says when they all gather for team meetings. Nelson often feels frustrated with his inability to say or interpret meaning in others' language. Nelson has a language processing disorder.

A language processing disorder (LPD) is a deficiency in the ability to understand what one hears (language); it can also affect a person's ability to speak. Individuals with LPD usually have normal appearance, hearing capabilities and intelligence. Due to their LPD, they may have issues with attention (ADHD if severe) or learning disabilities.

Language processing disorder is a type of auditory processing disorder (APD). While APD is more generalized on inability to interpret sounds, LPD is more specified on inability to interpret meaning from language.

Cause of Language Processing Disorder

Someone with LPD may visit an audiologist with complaints that they cannot hear what others are saying. After their tests come back normal, they may feel puzzled. What they might not know is that there is a lack in their brain's ability to take what they hear and turn it into meaningful language that they can understand.

Language processing disorder is caused by a deficit in the processing ability of the auditory nervous system in the brain. A normally functioning auditory nervous system will take note of patterns and scripts in communication; then it will utilize cues in the environment to help a person make sense of what someone is saying to them, even if the hearing environment is less than optimal.

For example, a man is at a loud party with blaring music and he is approached by a woman who begins to speak to him. He can't hear her that well, but his auditory nervous system helps him use his hearing and knowledge of past patterns of communication in social situations to understand what the woman is saying to him ('Hi, what is your name?'). A person with LPD may have more difficulty in this type of situation, and may just hear what the woman is saying as a string of sounds instead of actual language.

The actual cause of LPDs is still unknown, but theories suggest that it could be genetic, due to complications at birth, head injury or illness.

Symptoms of Language Processing Disorder in Adults

In school, children who have LPD often have difficulty with learning, reading, writing and spelling. But LPD presents differently in adults.

Adults with LPD can experience:

  • Tendency to answer 'the wrong question' when others ask them a question.
  • Difficulty understanding others, especially in less than optimal hearing environments (noisy mall, party, concert, etc.). This is due to a lag in a person's auditory nervous system, creating a problem in their ability to transform another's string of sounds into meaningful language.
  • Tendency to ask others to repeat what they said or ask supplementary questions to gain more information.
  • Poor memory.
  • Better listening ability when watching the speaker's mouth.
  • Sensitivity to sounds.
  • Frustration with inability to express thoughts verbally. A person with LPD may frequently feel like the word they want to say is at the tip of their tongue. Additionally, they may be more able to describe or draw a word they are thinking of instead of actually verbalize it.
  • Slowness in understanding the meaning behind jokes or sarcasm. A person with LPD has a tendency to take another person's words too literally.

Phone conversations can be difficult in individuals with LPD, as there is a lack of visuals to help the brain transform words or sounds heard into meaningful data.
Image of woman struggling to understand on the phone.

Adults with LPD often also experience sadness or even depression due to the perception that they are being judged for their inabilities. Even more, many adults with LPD have been bullied by peers or criticized by adults (who did not know they had LPD) when they were a child/teen.

Strategies That Help Adults with LPD

An adult with LPD could benefit from:

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