Late Talkers – Should you “wait and see”?

If you have ever had a question about your child’s communication skills, you have most likely encountered some of (if not all of) the following responses…

“Don’t worry, boys talk later than girls”

“It’s normal to be slower when learning two languages”

“They are fine. Every child develops at their own pace”

“Give them time. They’ll grow out of it”

“They don’t need to talk because they are the youngest”

“Your sister didn’t say a word until she was 5 and then she started speaking in full sentences”

“Just wait until they start childcare/school. Then you’ll be begging them to stop talking”

“Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4 and look how he turned out”

So what do all of these responses have in common? Apart from most of these statements being just plain wrong, the basic message in all of them is to do nothing… just “wait and see”.

I know that well meaning family and friends just want to help. When someone is stressed or worried we want to offer support and encouragement (“Don’t worry, they’ll be fine”), not kick them when they’re down (“Well now that you mention it, I have noticed that my child speaks much more clearly than yours. Awkward!”).

But, I’ll be honest, when I hear people giving this kind of “advice” to others, a big part of me just wants to grab them, shake them and yell “Are you serious?!?!?!”.

Over the top you say? Anger management issues? Perhaps. But let me explain…

When it comes to a child’s speech and language development, the notion that they will all learn at their own pace is misleading. Yes, the exact age at which children will hit a particular milestone may vary, but the stages that children pass through in the development of speech and language are actually very consistent. Therefore, we know that if certain milestones have not been reached by a specific age, this becomes cause for concern.

For instance, when it comes to a child saying their first words, anything between the ages of 8 and 16 months is considered to be “normal”. Consequently, if a child is not talking by 18 months of age this is a red flag and should be investigated further.

You can read more about 10 red flags of speech and language development here.

Does this mean that all 18 month olds who aren’t talking yet have a serious problem? Not at all! In fact approximately 70 – 80% of “late talkers” will catch up on their own. This is why if you were to google something along the lines of “My 18 month old isn’t talking”, you will get an overwhelming number of responses telling you not worry because “my child was exactly the same and they are fine now”.

So why do these silly speech pathologists make such a song and dance about identifying children as early as 18 months, if so many will catch up themselves? Well I’ll tell you… It’s because we are thinking about the other 20-30%. Remember them? They haven’t caught up. In fact, the gap is just getting larger and larger as more time passes. The reason we want to identify children early is to simply keep an eye on them because unfortunately, at this stage we are not able to predict which children will catch up and which children won’t.

To make matters even more confusing, the “late talkers” we are talking about in this instance are actually a very specific set of children. These children are toddlers (between 18-30 months) who have a good understanding of language, typically developing play skills, motor skills, thinking skills, and social skills, but have a limited spoken vocabulary for their age. The difficulty late talking children have is specifically with spoken or expressive language.  This group of children can be very puzzling because they seem to have all of the building blocks for spoken language, yet they don’t talk or talk very little.

If a child is displaying any red flags as part of their speech and language development, I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking the advice of a speech pathologist. Is it because I secretly desire world domination via one small child at a time? Tempting, but not quite. It is because we need to confirm who is a true “late talker” and who isn’t.

It is very difficult for parents and often even family doctors and paediatricians, to identify which children are true “late talkers”. When parents are given wrong information (e.g. “Children don’t start speech therapy until they are 2” or, “They are confused because you are using two languages. Just speak one and they’ll be fine.”) and when parents are asked misleading questions such as, “Does your child understand what you say?”, it can give them a false sense of security that everything is going to be ok. The “do they understand everything?” question drives me particularly insane because most parents respond confidently, “Oh yes, they understand everything I say to them. There’s no problem there, it’s just the talking.”

I know their answer is genuine but I have lost count of the number of children I have assessed, whose parents have thought everything is fine with their understanding/comprehension, who are then shocked to discover that in fact their child’s comprehension skills are markedly delayed. These children are not “late talkers”. They are language delayed or disordered and require intervention promptly. These children will not just “grow out of it”.

Why does this mismatch occur? The parents I work with are smart, attentive, very loving and are often very in tune with their child’s current skill level. Therefore, without realising it, they simplify their sentences, break longer instructions up into shorter ones, ask easier questions and use simpler vocabulary because they know that is what their child can cope with. These are all fantastic things to do because it enables the child to understand and follow what they are saying, however it can mask the fact that they are not understanding concepts and structures that would typically be expected for their age.

Just in case you’re thinking, “Calm down crazy lady! You are making a mountain out of a molehill”, consider this…

  • 20% of four year old children have difficulty understanding or using language
  • 16% of school students have a language impairment which affects students across all grades, in all subjects including maths, visual arts and PE
  • Children with a language impairment are six times more likely to have a reading problem than children without
  • 80% of children identified in primary school with language-based learning difficulties had unresolved reading, writing and spelling problems in secondary school
  • 14% of 15 year olds have only basic literacy skills
  • 46% of young Australian offenders have a language impairment.

Scary stuff don’t you think? Research shows that when children don’t catch up in their language skills, they have persistent language difficulties, as well as difficulty with reading and writing when they get to school. So waiting to see how things will change once they start school… not such a good idea!

The good news is, we know early intervention works. We know that the techniques and strategies we use to help “late talkers” do work. What’s more, they work especially well when used at young ages! Are you going to magically fix a language delay overnight? No. It’s going to take hard work and commitment from everyone involved.

I know there is a lot of pressure on children (and parents!) today. Probably more than ever before. They are being pushed to do and know more and more in order to be “ready for school”, with most of the emphasis being placed on what they are not doing, as opposed to acknowledging and building on all of the things that they can do.

Personally, I am a strong believer in letting kids be kids, but I cannot sit back and let that be used as an excuse for not seeking professional advice in a timely manner. And I guess ultimately, that is the problem I have with anyone who is not a speech pathologist confidently telling people “not to worry” or “just give it time”, because reassuring parents to the point of inaction is not helpful. In fact, if that child happens to be one of the many, many children who do need early intervention, that kind of “advice” is actually harmful!

So next time you are tempted to reassure someone who is concerned about their child’s speech and language skills that, “it’s normal”, or that their child “will grow out of it” or that “my child was exactly the same and they are fine”, remember this – you don’t know that! No matter how well intentioned you may be, no matter how many children you have raised, even if you have worked alongside a speech pathologist for 10 years… Are you qualified to make that call? Please don’t take risks with other people’s kids.

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1Comment
  • jolizsa
    Posted at 14:40h, 20 November Reply

    Excellent post. I hope it opens some eyes, My daughter picked up on her son’s speech issues at 18 months. He went to ” speech” and by the time he went to kindergarten had only a few sounds he could not say.

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