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Centre for Accessibility Services

Communication disorder

What are communication disorders?  

Communication disorders are related to challenges that occur with a person’s language and speech. The DSM-IV has categorized these challenges in 5 different areas, which are identified through a diagnostic criterion that is specific to the person’s ability to comprehend, detect, and apply language and speech to communicate with others. Some causes can be identified as hearing loss, vocal cord injury, physical conditions and/or neurological disorders. Treatment can be found through a variety of therapies that are specific to the type of disorder.

Common types of communication disorders with DSM-5 coding

  • Language disorder – DSM-5 code: 315.32
  • Speech sound disorder – DSM-5 code: 315.39
  • Speech childhood-onset fluency disorder (stuttering) – DSM-5 code: 315.35
  • Speech social (pragmatic) communication disorder – DSM-5 code: 315.39
  • Speech unspecified communication disorder – DSM-5 code: 307.9

Language disorder: A person with a diagnosis of language disorder demonstrates persistent difficulties in the acquisition and use of language across modalities (i.e., spoken, written, sign language, or other). The symptoms and common characteristics of language disorder are:

  • Reduced vocabulary
  • Limited sentence structure
  • Impairments in discourse (ability to use vocabulary and connect sentences to explain or describe a topic or series of events or have a conversation)
  • Language abilities are substantially and quantifiably below age expectations, resulting in functional limitations in effective communication, social participation, academic achievement, or occupational performance, individually or in any combination.
  • May appear to be withdrawn or “shy”                                                                                                                                  

Speech sound disorder: A person with a diagnosis of speech sound disorder demonstrates persistent difficulties with speech sound production that interferes with speech intelligibility or prevents verbal communication of messages. The symptoms and common characteristics of sound disorder are:

  • Difficulty producing speech sounds
  • Leaving out sounds or substituting an incorrect sound for a correct one
  • Running out of breath whilst speaking
  • Sudden changes to pitch or volume whilst speaking

Speech childhood-onset fluency disorder (stuttering): A person with a diagnosis of speech childhood-onset fluency disorder (stuttering) demonstrates disturbances in the 'normal' fluency and time patterning of speech that are inappropriate for the individual’s age and language skills. The symptoms and common characteristics for childhood-onset fluency disorder are:

  • Sound and syllable repetitions
  • Sound prolongations of consonants as well as vowels
  • Broken words (e.g. pauses within a word)
  • Audible or silent blocking (filled or unfilled pauses in speech)
  • Word substitutions to avoid problematic words
  • Monosyllabic whole-word repetitions
  • Heightened anxiety around public speaking/presenting

Speech social (pragmatic) communication disorder: A person with a diagnosis of speech social (pragmatic) communication disorder demonstrates persistent difficulties in the social use of verbal and non-verbal communication. The symptoms and common characteristics for speech social (pragmatic) communication disorder are:

  • Difficulty in the acquisition and use of spoken and written language
  • Inappropriate responses in conversation
  • Misinterpreting/unable to read body language
  • Difficulty in following accepted conversational ‘rules’
  • Changing language depending on the situation or audience

Speech unspecified communication disorder: A person with a diagnosis of speech unspecified communication disorder experiences symptoms of a speech disorder, but does not meet a sufficient number of the diagnostic criteria to warrant a more specific diagnosis. Their symptoms have a significant impact on social, occupational, educational, and interpersonal functioning. 

Centre for Accessibility support for communication disorders may include

  • Assistive technology
  • Note-taking services
  • Tutoring support
  • Time accommodation for exams


  • Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic disability among older adults, behind arthritis and hypertension.
  • Approximately 10% of the general population, 20% of those over 65 and 40% of those over 75 (including 80% of nursing home residents) have a significant hearing problem.
  • An estimated 4% of the preschool population has a significant speech or language disorder.
  • An estimated 1% of Canadians and 4% of preschoolers stutter; men are four times more likely to stutter than women.


Psychology Today

Fact sheet

How to support students with a communication disorder

  • Be patient when waiting for a response from a student, as it may take them longer to process information and formulate their response. It may feel awkward to leave several seconds of silence, but allow them the time they need and try not to rush them or answer for them.
  • Consistently model good communication skills/techniques and correct vocabulary.
  • Provide key-vocabulary lists for each unit/topic.
  • When possible, pair a visual picture with the vocabulary words. When vocabulary is abstract and pictures are not available, try to relate the words to a personal experience for students to relate to.
  • When giving instructions/directions, keep them simple. Consider providing written instructions for multi-step tasks.
  • Avoid spontaneously singling the student out to respond to questions; provide a warning and allow them to prepare their answer.
  • Consistently and discreetly check for understanding by using open-ended questioning.
  • Try to avoid the overuse of idioms.
  • Try to avoid the overuse of jargon (unless well supported with vocabulary lists).

Resources and websites 

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association 

Speech and language disorders in college

Tips and tools for students with a communication disorder

  • Work with your accessibility advisor to help you communicate effectively with your instructors about what is helpful/unhelpful to you for your learning.
  • Make use of flashcards or mind mapping to help learn and embed new vocabulary.
  • Try not to rush your responses, be patient and think carefully about what it is you want to communicate.
  • If you have alternate ways of communication that have helped you in the past, let your instructors know – your accessibility advisor can help you with this if you want them to.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you are unsure of something.

Resources and websites

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Speech and language disorders in college

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