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Late Talker and Gifted

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My son is 3 years 10 months old and severely speech delayed. At present he will string together short commonly used phrases and will repeat almost anything one prompts him to, but is by no means conversational. He hit all of his milestones a couple of months later than most children not walking until the end of 15 months. He also shows little interest in drawing.

He has always had a very long attention span. He would sit and watch TV shows like "Blues Clues" at 6 months old. At 1 yrs he would play with wood blocks for hours making intricate structures for example: placing two arches opposite each other and sliding a sphere in the middle. One time I saw him make five of the exact same four block structures, he began a sixth but could not find the half sphere he was using as a 'roof top' and abandoned his play.

When he was two, I would do 24 piece puzzles with him, I would do the outside border and he would fill in the middle. (I never thought to let him try one on his own) He could also complete a shape ball in a matter of minutes. On his third birthday he received a transformer, he promptly spread the instructions out on floor and studied them for a long time with a knit brow. Two days later I came down stairs to see he had transformed it from a jeep to a robot in a manner of minutes.

He still always looks at instructions. He will run up to me holding a book and point out a word, this started when he was 2.9. His daycare tells me he plays computer games designed for 5-7 years old with the ease of an adult. He can be very social but will not participate in an activity if it does not interest him, he tends to play alone. His social skills are below average. He can become overly sensitive to movies he watches. He watched "Two Brothers" and freaked when the tiger was taken away from the boy, was also upset when the two tigers were placed in a cage to fight each other. After the movie ended he was still visibly upset. Plot lines tend to upset him. He has also displayed an incredible memory.

We have had two speech therapists tell us he is not a candidate for speech therapy. They see him as a late talker for which we have a family history of on both sides.

Can my son be gifted even though is so behind in other areas?

A: As a rough guide, at about 3 plus, your son should have a vocabulary of around 500 words leading towards 1,200 words or more by age 4. Having said that, preschoolers range widely in the number of words that they use and this guide is just an average development of most kids within the said age range.

From your description, there is a high possibility that your son may be gifted and his delays in speech may just be developmental. Although, early talkers have more access to learning faster and hence may develop faster that the average child, it is possible for the speech of highly gifted children to be delayed. One study on giftedness had indicated a case of two brothers who did not speak until 18 months and 21 months respectively. Their parents were warned by their pediatricians that this might be indicative of intellectual disability. Later tested, the brothers revealed an IQ of 170 and 200!

In these cases, when speech does appear, it often arrives in the form of phrases or short sentences, rather than words in isolation which appears to be the case for your son. Therefore, as it is important to note that unusually early speech is indeed a rather powerful indicator of possible giftedness, at the same time, delays in speech should not be taken as an indicator that the child is not gifted or worse, intellectually challenged.

Also, from your description on his activities based on his age, he definitely appears more advanced than the average child. He appears to me to be a visual learner. These learners may think in pictures and learn best from visual displays. He also appears to have logical intelligence which makes him mathematically inclined. Therefore, there is no surprise that he enjoys solving problems, particularly if they are math related. His favorite toys would likely be building blocks, and pattern puzzles. This type of learner learns best by categorizing, classifying, and working with abstract patterns or relationships as s/he matures. Apart from that, he also shows emotional intensity, a distinct characteristic of gifted children.

If his speech delays continues and appears to develop very slowly, you may want to see another therapist perhaps for a third opinion. But, if he is getting better, there isnít much to worry about. Just concentrate on his learning skills and help his enjoy his learning journey.


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