The Late Talker
When is late talking simply a matter of temperament and not a symptom of a neurological or learning disorder?
Milestones and Influences
Talk shows. Radios. Cell phones. Everywhere we go, we see evidence of the value we place on the spoken word. We equate verbal eloquence with intelligence or success. Little wonder, then, that we parents are so eager to have our children achieve—or exceed—the standard milestones for speaking. Missing those milestones has become a signal for worry and an indicator of other more fundamental problems.
Yet Einstein was a late talker, and so were many notable scientists, engineers, economists, columnists—and possibly even the person who helped you the last time your computer wouldn’t go online. When is late talking simply a matter of temperament and not a symptom of a neurological or learning disorder?
In general, most children follow this path to speech:
- Cooing and babbling socially (in response to your vocalizations) around age two months
- Some “syllables” (la-la, abu, nanana) around age six months
- One word utterances (mama, dada) by age one
- Two word sentences by age two: “Cookie allgone!” (bye-bye, allgone are considered one-word utterances in this case)
- Three or more word sentences by age three
- Adult style speech by age four, with some allowance for grammar and pronunciation. “Wascally wabbit!” or “Him and me played.”
As with all developmental milestones, children reach them at varied rate. Some talk at 10 months, others may wait another six. Likewise, genetic and environmental factors may come into play. A history of “naturally” late talkers in the family who “grew out of it” is one example. Children growing up in bilingual homes may need more time to process the different vocabularies and grammars—but when they do, what an advantage!
Some parents of late talkers say their children were simply less motivated toward early speech; they had older siblings ready to anticipate their needs and speak for them. However, these children are most likely inclined towards waiting; otherwise the youngest child would always be the late talker.
Sometimes, learning style plays a part. Stephen Camarata, a speech-language pathologist with over 20 years’ experience working with late talkers, said that he’s seen children who are more prone to perfectionism wait until they can enunciate and speak at an adult level—something they simply cannot do in the toddler years. Others may put speech aside while learning something new.
Laila Bernhartsen’s son suddenly stopped babbling at eight months; neurological tests showed he was doing fine except in the area of speech. He did “o.k.” at therapy, but months later, surprised his mom by correctly identifying every letter in the alphabet, even flipping M to make W. “It became apparent that he also was able to read. His therapist later told me it is not really unusual for boys (especially) to learn one thing at a time, and when they discover that they can move, manipulate their environment, or any new skill, they put others (esp. speech) aside,” she said.
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