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A primary question

At the end of his book, Sowell asks himself a question that he expects readers to end up asking:

What can parents of Late-talking children do?

Here is his reply to that question:

First of all, they can recognize that there are many children who talk late and very different reasons why they do. At least one subset of such children is not merely "normal" in intelligence, but often well above normal in some respects, as some of the children in our group obviously are. Whether a given child is simply delayed in speaking or has serious mental or other disabilities is a crucial question, for which good professional evaluation is essential.

The kinds of children who talk late but then go on to do well in schools and colleges, and to have careers in demanding fields, may be more common than I would have suspected just a year or two ago. My discussions of our group with colleagues and friends has often brought forth more examples and some parents in the group report having similar experiences. There seem to be a lot of such people out there, who are only mentioned when this particular subject is brought up. Yet there has been no systematic information on these people before, nor even much awareness of their existence.

 

Where late-talking is a transient phenomenon, it is almost as if it never happened, as far as the experiences of people outside the family are concerned. In adulthood, the individual himself is often unaware that he talked late-something which usually had nothing like the ominous meaning and emotional stress for the child that it did for the parent-and may discover delayed speech in his past only if and when the parent has an occasion to mention it. The result is that each new parent with a bright child who talks late is likely to feel as baffled and isolated as those who went before, simply because of being unaware of those who went before, even if they live in the same neighborhood. Nor are many professional specialists likely to accumulate a large store of information or experience about the continuing development of such children, since parents are likely to stop taking their children to see these specialists after they begin talking.

 

The experiences of the parents and children in our group may help fill some of the void, both for parents and for those who come in contact with bright, late-talking children in schools and other settings. If nothing else, these experiences should promote caution among those who might otherwise be quick to label a child, risking needless anguish for the parents and long-run damage to the child, especially if he gets swallowed up by one of the many special programs from which few emerge into a normal school setting. Parents must also be prepared to fight for their children's interests and not be manipulated or intimidated by the education system's 11 experts" and smooth talkers. If you need a real expert, hire your own.

 

If competent medical authorities discover some recognizable reason for the child's delay in talking, then they are likely also to be the best source of advice on what to do about it. But what if medical science ends up as baffled as the parents, because specialists can find nothing wrong and the child seems obviously bright? There are no miracle methods for getting the child talking, but patience, love, and attention may be the best help for this, as for many other things. Research has shown that interaction with adults helps a child's mental development, even if the adults themselves are low-IQ individuals. Apparently the brain itself is permanently better off for this early childhood stimulation." In other words, neither advanced people nor advanced gadgets are necessary to promote a small child's mental development.

Most of the parents in our group took their child to a speech therapist but not all were convinced that this did much good. Much may depend on the age and stage of development at which speech therapy begins. If the child is simply not yet ready for speech, then attempts to force it may be counterproductive, as well as risking devastating diagnoses from a frustrated therapist who may have no qualifications for making any diagnosis at all. However, once the child is beginning to talk, then therapy may be very effective, as it was for my son and for others in our group. So may reading to the child, tape-recording his words and playing them back, or other methods that may occur to parents. If the hypothesis that speech delay among bright children reflects a later development of that part of the brain where speech originates is correct, then attempts to force speech seem especially ill-advised.

This survey should be only the beginning of efforts to understand this particular subset of late-talking children and their special abilities and distinctive family backgrounds. These children's development needs to be followed over a period of years and perhaps decades. Some of the questions asked in the survey-about allergies or ear infections, for example-were not intended to tell us much immediately, but rather to allow follow-up research to determine if those with particular sets of characteristics turned out differently from others and what that implies for the diagnoses of other such children in the future.

Since I am past the age at which it makes sense to begin following people for decades, I would particularly welcome any interest by medical or scientific specialists in taking our data and carrying the research forward. In the meantime, perhaps what parents of late-talking children need to know above all is: You are not alone. Those of us in our group have been there before you, and some are still there, struggling with present problems and future uncertainties. Although late-talking in general has often been a sign of other serious and lasting problems, many parents of intelligent children who talk late have found light at the end of the tunnel sometimes very bright light.

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