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Delayed Speech Developments

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My son just turned 4. I live in the US for the past 3 years and am an Indian. We speak out native language at home. My son started to speak when he turned 3 when we visited India for 2 months. Even now his speech is not clear but he has started making sentences. And yet he has shown very good development in other fields. Like he could use a computer at the age of 2. He inserted DVDs and played them, maneuvered the mouse and dragged and dropped. He has an amazing sense of direction and it was obvious at the age of 2. Also he has an amazing memory and is very good in picture matching.

In general he is a cheerful and happy child can play for hours with his cars is always humming a tune or something while at play. He can copy a picture, write all the letters, counts on his fingers and write his name. He is so much into cars that he can recognize any car on the road before 4. Today he knows all models of cars. He was recently tested but got mixed outputs due to his inability to respond verbally. I am very concerned about his speech. He could not get into a school for gifted children due to his lack of speech.

My question is what do you think of his abilities and where does he stand intellectually? And what do you have to say on this and are there any tips for me to work on him.

A: There are benchmarks for determining whether a child is gifted. Most schools with gifted programs define this as an IQ of 120 or more on a standardized test. Testing would be appropriate to determine the exact and specific abilities that your child has but not all abilities. Advanced verbal development is one of the most common traits of early giftedness but at the same time a child who demonstrates other advancements but late speech development may also be in the gifted range. It is also found that the phenomenon of late talking in children (especially boys) who turn out to be normal to gifted in ability is not uncommon. However, a much delayed speech may cause delays in the acquisition of a number of other skills.

As the saying goes "Silence is Golden", however, the silence both from and about "late talker" children is definitely not golden! Delayed speech development in children is a perplexing subject. Parents often worry when their child talks later than average as it may be a sign of developmental problems on a more universal scale. Hence, speech production is an important milestone in any child's development. There are two groups that late talkers can fall into: the first that are within normal limits for speech development (but too late to make parents happy especially in comparison with others) and next, the ones who are truly late in speech development.

There are no worries for the first group as it takes care of itself. For the second group, parents may need to get their child assessed. The problems can range from hearing loss due to past ear infections, hereditary deafness, to allergies, autism, dyslexia, Central Auditory Processing Deficits (CAPD), Sensory Integration Dysfunction, ADHD, and the list goes on. This can be diagnosed by a speech pathologist and would need to be treated.

By 4 years of age your child should be familiar with the following:

  • Rather close to adult style speech even if certain letters are still troublesome.

  • Knows names of familiar animals.

  • Knows one or more colors.

  • Conversation almost 100% intelligible to another person.

  • Can use at least four prepositions or can demonstrate his understanding of their meaning when given commands.

  • Names common objects in picture books or magazines

  • Expansion of vocabulary would be around 1,500 words by now.

  • Ability to tell elaborate stories using relatively complex sentences (up to eight words).

  • Ability to talk about dreams and fantasies.

  • Indulgence in make-believe.

  • Demonstrates understanding of "over" and "under".

  • Ability to repeat 4 digits when they are given slowly.

  • Ability to repeat words of four syllables.

  • Has most vowels and diphthongs and the consonants p, b, m, w, n well established.

  • Extensive verbalization as tasks/activities are carried out.

  • Able to follows simple commands without having the stimulus objects in sight.

  • Repetition of words, phrases, syllables, and even sounds.

If you find that your child is not functioning at least at these levels, s/he should be evaluated, preferably by a speech pathologist or a developmental specialist to rule out any suspicion of more pervasive developmental delay than just in speech/language skills.

As for your son, if he is already talking, all you may want to do is to improve his verbal ability. I suggest you see a speech therapist who may be able to pinpoint the problem and recommend alternatives. A good book that you may want to read is Late Talking Children, by Thomas Sowell, a distinguished economist at Stanford University who has a son who talked very late and yet is quite gifted.

Do not worry too much about your son's verbal abilities. Being aware and doing what you are able to is a big step indeed. And remember that your son is learning two languages at the same time, which is quite remarkable on its own. The absence of early speech is not therefore, an indication that the child is not in gifted range. Quite interestingly, an example of delayed speech is of Albert Einstein, who did not talk until 3 years of age and was suspected of being learning disabled!


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