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Your Child is a Late Talker: When Should You Start Worrying?

A child talking and covered in finger paint

Do You Have a Late Bloomer or a Problem?

As a parent, you know your child. You understand what your child means when she points to the door or waves. You listen to your toddler babbling and watch her play. You remember what your older children said and did when they were the same age. Just like it is reasonable to compare your toddler to the other children so too, it is reasonable to worry when this child isn’t keeping up.

If you detect even the most subtle of a communication problem, invariably you will ask your friends, relatives or even the pediatrician for an unofficial evaluation. And you may get answers like, “My son was slow, too. Now he won’t shut up,” or “Don’t worry; she’ll outgrow it.” The doctor may tell you to relax, not to be concerned until the child is ready for school. And the doctor may be correct.

But that nagging feeling won’t go away. What if they aren’t right? No parent wants just to relax only to find out later that something could have done, and now it may be too late!

While all children go through practically identical stages as their speech and language develop, it is often difficult to gauge the precise point that your child will arrive at any particular stage. The breadth of what is considered normal is quite extensive and can vary a lot.

The primary variables in your child’s speech and language development are:

  1. Her innate capacity to learn the language
  2. Other seemingly unrelated skills that are being learned concurrently
  3. How much talking she hears around her during the day
  4. What type of response is elicited from those who are watching her

What Are You Looking For?

If your child is anywhere between 18 and 30 months old and not talking as well as you think he should, you should be aware of some of the factors that put your child at higher risk of developing speech or language problems. Having a problem with anything on this list doesn’t guarantee a problem, but it may cause for concern.

Understanding – Generally, a child understands what he hears before becoming verbal. This is known as receptive language. Although your child may not be talking like others his age, he may be able to follow simple directions or point to the object when you name it. If the understanding is there even though the language ‘isn’t, it’s highly likely that his language will catch up. If not, this may signal a language delay.

Gestures – Children often gesture to communicate before they begin to use many words. Gestures can include anything from waving “hi” or “bye” to pointing, to putting out her arms signalling that she wants to be picked up. As a rule of thumb, the more your child communicates through gestures, the more likely she will catch up to others her age.

Learning new words – Even children who begin talking slower should be experimenting with new words every month. If she does this, there is less likely to be a language delay. If you aren’t hearing many new words, there may be a problem.

What Causes a Speech Delay?

1. General Speech-Language Delay – Perhaps the most common and most natural problem to solve, this delay is temporary and can be remedied with a combination of speech therapy, be it face-to-face or via teletherapy, combined with reinforcement from home. These children catch up to the others in a relatively short time.

2. Expressive Language Problems – This is when a child can think and understand clearly and develop healthy relationships. While the ‘child’s talking is “normal,” he is unable to transform talking into expressive language. The delay in speech is grounded in the child’s struggle to be an effective communicator.

3. Receptive Language Problems – This condition is somewhat the converse of an expressive language problem. Here, the child’s comprehension is compromised, so consequently, the child speaks unclearly manifesting the inability to connect words with concepts, instructions, or even objects. While speech therapy, be it onsite or via teletherapy, will help it will often take considerable time to see significant results.

4. Autism – Children who are on the spectrum often display multiple developmental problems, including speech delay and the inability to communicate clearly. Repetitive activity is also common. In such situations, professional evaluation and treatment are necessary to arrive at an accurate diagnosis..

5. Childhood Apraxia of Speech – This problem is reflective of the child lacking the capacity to enunciate the proper sounds for the chosen word. The result is a speech impairment and difficulty for the listener to understand what the child is trying to say. This condition often requires a multi-pronged approach to resolve.

6. Hearing Loss – Sometimes hearing loss, even temporarily from chronic ear infections, can wreak havoc on a child’s speech. Both the clarity and quality of the child’s speech may deteriorate as the hearing loss continues. The child is essentially becoming disconnected from the “speaking world” at a vulnerable juncture in his life.

What Can You Do About It?

It is relatively easy to take the guesswork out of the entire situation. If you think there may be a problem, get your child evaluated and have your child seen by a speech therapist, either face-to-face or via teletherapy. After the SLP meets with your child, she is sure to have ideas to implement immediately. Alternatively, she may suggest meeting with your child regularly for a period of time if your child’s condition seems to warrant such intervention.

But often the work of the SLP needs to be supplemented by the child’s parents.

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