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Pediatricians say Late Talking Toddlers Are A-Okay

Young children who are slow to begin articulating verbal language have long concerned parents, but a recent study has shown that a late talking tike’s mental health is unlikely to suffer as a result.

An Australian team of researchers studied a group of late talkers into their teenager years and discovered that the children were no more likely to be shy, depressed, or aggressive than their peers throughout adolescents. 

"This data is reassuring," reported Julia Irwin, who studies language development at Haskins Laboratories, a non-profit research institute in New Haven, Connecticut. "But parents will need to pay attention to other troubling symptoms of either psychosocial problems or language and reading problems."

While late talkers are unlikely to suffer significantly from social stigmas, Irwin explained, such children usually have some language or reading problems when they approach appropriate school age.

According to the researchers, 7% to 18% of children undergo language delays at two years, but most catch up by the time they start school. Previous studies have suggested that these toddlers may face psychological problems as a result, but until recently, it was never clear whether this would impact the children as they grew up.

This recent study, which is the first to perform a long-term study of late talking children, was led by psychologist Andrew Whitehouse at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

Whitehouse and fellow researchers studied the data of over 1,400 two-year-olds, collected through their parents. The parents filled out a language development survey which asked about the words their child would use spontaneously; normally, a two-year-old verbalizes a few hundred words.

Through this survey, the researchers discovered that roughly one in every ten child participants was a late talker. These late talkers typically scored in the lowest 15% on a list of 310 common words.

The researchers also found that 13% of the late talking toddlers displayed "internalizing" behaviors, such as being shy, sad or underactive, when compared to the 8% of their verbally unhindered peers. This tendency to internalize, however, was virtually gone when the researchers checked up on the children by the age of five, and did not resurge for the duration of the study, which lasted until the seventeenth birthdays of the participants.

According to the researchers, the fact that the internalizing behavior evaporated with time suggests that the reason more late talkers displayed behavioral problems as toddlers is most likely due to increased frustration caused by not being able to communicate.

As such, a ‘wait and see’ attitude appears to be what the researchers are suggesting is the best approach.

Other experts, however, are not so convinced. Child psychologist Gail Ross, an expert who was not a part of the study, stated that it would have been helpful to know when the late talkers caught up with their typically developing peers.

"'Wait and see' may be okay at two years, but there should be a critical time after which language delays should be treated," said Ross, who continued to suggest that if a child is not verbalizing effectively by age two-and-a-half or three, then it might be the appropriate time to seek help.

"The crucial question is, at what point is 'wait and see' no longer a valid approach?" concluded Ross.

This study is published online in full PDFin the journal Pediatrics.
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