Language delay or loss of speech is probably the most common symptom of autism that parents consider a red flag, with many parents raising concerns about their children not talking on time. As an autism consultant, I meet quite a number of children suspected to have autism because of delayed speech, and I can tell that they don’t have autism.
We are in a more informed generation now than our parents, so when children spoke late in the past, mothers’ minds were put at rest because they were told that the child would eventually speak, which most times was the case. But in this time, because we have seen those that were eventually discovered to have autism, mothers are more panicky and schools are worried, and cannot help comparing such children with their mates that are already talking.
Recently, I spoke with a colleague on this matter, and I learnt a lot from her which I want to share. Her name is Eniola Lahanmi. I am sure Eniola knows that I am her fan, I wish I could have done a video interview with her (maybe I will one day).
A quick intro, so you can see why I am her fan: Eniola received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology at The Rochester Institute of Technology in the US, and a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Therapy at the University of Reading in the UK. Between her first degree and her Masters, she worked in Nigeria as a behaviour therapist for children with developmental disorders, autism inclusive. You can tell that passion drove her to learn some more, right? Anyway, Eniola currently consults for special needs centers, providing therapy for children with language delays and communication difficulties.
Back to the matter; Eniola told me that in layman terms, language delay just means that the child is not talking yet at the expected time. If it’s just language delay, it means that there is nothing medically causing the delay. So it’s quite different for a child that has autism or Down syndrome, whose disorder causes speech impairment.
Although there’s no data recorded in Nigeria on how many children have language delay, but she says that she gets an average of 3 families per week that are concerned about their child whose language is delayed.
The thing is, there are basic milestones that parents expect to see, by which they will know if their child’s language is developing. For example, at 6 months you expect a child to make reduplicated babble sounds like bababa. I learnt from Eniola that the baby’s babbles are usually related to phonyms and sounds of the native language of the child. What that means is that a Yoruba child will babble differently from a Russian or German child, because they have certain sounds that are missing in the Yoruba Language.
Between 18 months and 2 years, the child is expected to have about 50 words. And at about 24 months, children usually have a vocabulary growth sprout, raising the number of words the child has to about 200 or much more. But this vocabulary growth sprout may be a bit delayed for some children, with some showing it at 3 years old.
Should parents worry if their child is not babbling at 6 months?
Eniola says that parents don’t have to worry if their child is not babbling at 6 months. According to her, there are some children who do not babble till 8 months, and some babble late and start talking at age 1. That means that babbling late may not be a pointer to language delay. But there are certain pointers that a child may have delayed language;
At 9 months, a child is expected to be able to look at the direction you are pointing or follow your eye gaze. This is referred to as Joint Attention. Children with language delay usually don’t show this skill early.
Also children are expected to start imitating your actions before they start imitating your words, which is the primary way children pick up Language. If a child is almost 1 and not imitating facial expressions or simple actions, it may be an indicator of language delay.
For parents that are concerned that their child is not talking yet, the advice is not to panic. It doesn’t help if you panic because that may affect your child more. Also chances are that you will be seeing more than what is there. See a developmental paediatrician, so that they can check if the delay is caused by any particular disorder. Remember that language delay does not always mean autism, so be careful in labeling your child before you take your child to the doctor.
For some parents, you may see a speech and language therapist. This will most likely put your mind at rest, and give your child an opportunity to pick up vocabulary earlier than he would if left alone.
But most importantly, spend time with your child. Eniola says that spending quality time daily, at least 10-15 minutes, with your child will yield good results in building your child’s communication and language skills. Pick an activity to do with your child that will require you and your child to repeat lots of words.
Reduce time on TV and IPad. Since the TV does not require them to talk back, so you may find the child singing to himself or echoing to themselves. This fills the space for social interaction which is expected to help build your child’s communication and imitation skill. It is therefore better to turn off the TV and other gadgets, and engage your child, or have someone else engage your child when you can’t.
I hope this puts your mind to rest. Have a beautiful month of March ahead.