Adversity Exposure, Syntax, and Specific Language Impairment: An Exploratory Study

J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2022 Sep 12;65(9):3471-3490. doi: 10.1044/2022_JSLHR-21-00578. Epub 2022 Aug 16.


Purpose: Children exposed to adversity (e.g., chronic poverty, traumatic events, and maltreatment) are at increased risk for performing below age expectations on norm-referenced language assessments, but it is unknown whether the risk is higher for specific language impairment (SLI). This exploratory study investigated whether adversity exposure is associated with reduced grammar knowledge and SLI.

Method: The syntax subtest of the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation-Norm-Referenced (DELV-NR) assessment was administered to 30 school-age children with known histories of adversity exposure. Their primary caregiver also completed a comprehensive adversity exposure measure, which captured adverse event type, frequency, chronicity, and severity. Analyses included t tests, correlations, Mann-Whitney U tests, and chi-square.

Results: Overall, the sample performed below age expectations on the DELV-NR Syntax subtest, and a higher percentage of participants (20%) met diagnostic criteria for SLI than expected. The SLI and typical language (TL) groups did not significantly differ in adversity dosage, frequency, chronicity, or severity; however, participants in the SLI group were 1.46 times more likely to have experienced physical trauma than the participants in the TL group.

Conclusions: Children with known histories of adversity exposure presented with grammatical deficits and SLI more often than expected based on the DELV-NR normative sample; however, features of the adverse event did not associate with SLI status except for exposure to physical trauma (e.g., physical abuse and victimization). Future research is needed to investigate the prevalence and potential causal pathways of SLI in this population.

Supplemental material:

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Humans
  • Language Development Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Language Tests
  • Linguistics
  • Specific Language Disorder*