Whoever said children should be seen and not heard was most certainly not a parent of a child whose speech was delayed. Because dealing with a late talker — a toddler who has a solid grasp of language and typical cognitive, social, vision, and hearing development, but a limited spoken or expressive vocabulary — is a stressful experience for parents.
But it doesn’t have to be, says Michelle MacRoy-Higgins, Ph.D. A speech-language pathologist and co-author of Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Speech and Language Development, she says that although late talkers demand attention, a speech delay isn’t always cause for concern. “I don’t want parents to think that if their child is a late talker, that he or she is doomed. Because it’s very common,” MacRoy-Higgins says. “In fact, it’s estimated that about 15 percent of toddlers are late talkers.”
MacRoy-Higgins does stress that parents need to remain diligent about language developmental delays, because with early awareness of neurodivergence comes early intervention. MacRoy-Higgins spoke to Fatherly about understanding late talkers, what the warning signs are, and how the right kinds of interventions can help children of few words catch up to their peers by Pre-K.
What, exactly, is a late talker?
A late talker is usually a child who is 2 years old who’s saying fewer than 50 words and is not yet combining words. The point of comparison is an average 2-year-old who has mastered about 300 words and starts to put them together into very short sentences like “More milk,” or “Mommy up.”
Is this an issue of genetics?
What we do know is that language skills tend to run in families, so the late talker is likely to have another family member who had some kind of language issue. We don’t have a specific gene, but we’ve observed these trends.
So is the language delay a disorder?
Well, we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. There is a lot of evidence that says it’s a language delay, which means that these kids are following the typical developmental path but slower. There’s some research that shows there are differences in late talkers in terms of language development, which leads us to think it might be a disorder.
What happens with late talkers is that more than half of them usually catch up to their peers. They enter Kindergarten and their language skills are in the average range. In those kids, we think it was simply a delay, whereas other kids — about 25 percent of late talkers — continue to have difficulty with language. These children are usually diagnosed, in preschool years or elementary years, with language impairment.
What are some common reasons or causes for late talking?
Late talking is something that’s common to many different diagnoses. Those with a known genetic disorder like Down syndrome or autism often have a language impairment. But children who are late talkers are those who are developing typically. In other words, they have typical hearing, vision, motor, and cognitive skills. But for some reason, language is an area that is delayed.
If a child is a late talker, does that mean they fall somewhere along the autism spectrum?
No, not necessarily. Kids with autism are often late talkers, but not all late talkers have autism. The definition of a late talker we’re speaking about here implies that the child has typical cognitive, social, vision, and hearing skills. Kids on the autism spectrum are often late to say their first words, but they also have social engagement issues and cognitive delays.
How do you diagnose a late talker?
In terms of development, language and cognition are so related to each other that what we have to do is look at cognitive skills that are not related to their language skills. A way to test a baby’s cognitive skills, for instance, is to look at their problem-solving abilities and play skills — how they can do things like matching pictures or putting shapes together to do a puzzle. Those things don’t really require language in terms of saying anything or listening to language, but they give us an idea of a child’s ability to learn things and take information from their environment. If their cognitive skills are in the average range but their language is significantly delayed, that leads us to believe the underlying problem is with language skills.
What are some early signs that a child is having difficulty speaking?
What we want to do is look at babies when they are really young and look for early speech behaviors. Babies start babbling — making sounds like “ba-ba-ba” and “ma-ma-ma” — as early as 6 months, and we want to see that. Babies who aren’t babbling by 7 or 8 months are showing a sign that something may not be developing in a typical fashion.
And before 6 months, something that’s not quite babbling occurs. We call it “cooing.” Those are soft vowel-like sounds, “oohs” and “aahs,” and we want to hear these pre-linguistic vocalizations. They’re important because they’re practice for saying real words, which children begin forming at 9 to 15 months of age.
When should a parent start to raise concerns about a late talker?
Anytime between 9 to 15 months. That’s when most kids start to say real words. If you have a child that hasn’t spoken any words at that age, we want to look carefully at that child.
There’s a lot of unverified information floating around about late talkers. What are some common misperceptions or myths that are just plain wrong?
There is this misconception that a baby that doesn’t crawl will be a late talker, but there is no scientific evidence to support that notion. Some people also think it’s not that big of a deal if a child is a late talker. They think they’ll catch up and be absolutely fine. And though it’s true that more than half of kids catch up during Kindergarten, it’s also true that if you follow the late talkers to adolescence, that group on average will score below their peers on language and literacy tests. They get into a normal developmental range, but they might not ever be as good at language as a peer who never had a language delay.
What should parents do if they suspect their child is a late talker?
They should first get their child’s hearing tested. You want to make sure that the child is hearing properly. And you also want to visit a speech-language pathologist or therapist who specializes in language development and can measure a child’s expressive and receptive language skills.
What are some post-diagnosis treatment options?
Treatment would involve a speech language therapist working with a child. Ideally, it would involve working with the whole family to train and teach parents and caregivers strategies to use at home. Intervention would occur once or twice weekly, but the caregivers would work with the child every day.
In addition to your book, where can parents go for more information?
People can go to the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) website. It’s a wonderful resource for families who want to learn more about speech and hearing disorders.