Late Talker Definition

A mom sent me this definition of “late talker” and asked me if I agreed. I absolutely think it sums it up.

“Late talker is a term used to describe children between the ages of 18 to 20 months who have fewer than 10 words and children between the ages of 21 to 30 months who have fewer than 50 words and/or no two-word combinations. These children are, however, typically developing in the areas of comprehension, play, motor?and cognitive/learning skills.”

The key to this definition in my mind is the “typically developing in the areas of comprehension, play, motor, and cognitive/learning skills.”

This definition does not include children who test below average in how they understand language, demonstrate decreased social or interaction skills, exhibit fine or gross motor delays, or have any other learning issues. It would also not include toddlers who are exhibiting any other “stereotypic behaviors” or other traits commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder. (I’m in the process of researching a post on the definition of stereotypic behaviors in toddlers since we get so many questions/searches about this on our site. Look for this in the next few days/weeks.)

There is a debate about when/how the term “late talker” should be used for toddlers since many groups are now favoring this term rather than any other diagnosis that would lend itself to a “negative” view of a child’s development.

As a parent, I understand that you may not want your child “labeled” so that a teacher or administrator would misjudge your child on the perceptions of a diagnosis rather than getting to know your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses and appreciate him for who and where he is.

However, as a therapist, I tend to want to say to parents, “Don’t kid yourself.” Any experienced teacher or professional who has worked with children long enough will KNOW when there’s a difference. Actually you want them to “KNOW” so that they can give your child the special help he or she needs. “Hiding” a child’s diagnosis or avoiding getting one when it’s applicable is really not the best approach in my opinion.

For one thing, children with a formal diagnosis typically qualify for more services, especially after a child turns 3 and is out of the early intervention system. While most school districts and insurance companies base their eligibility decisions on what a child’s needs/weaknesses are and how his performance compares to other children through standardized testing, having a diagnosis DOES seem to make a difference in getting your child the special services he may need.

Forget trying to get most insurance companies to pay for speech therapy with a diagnosis of “language delay” or “late talker.” You’re going to need more than that, or else you’ll end up paying out-of-pocket or using the free public school option. (By the way – many school districts have wonderful SLPs that are highly qualified to treat your preschool or school-aged child. Unfortunately, like in any other profession or subject matter, some do not. There are mechanics that I will not allow to work on my car, hairdressers I won’t let come near my hair, and classroom teachers I’d prefer not teach my children math, science, history, or reading. SLPs are not immune to this dilemma.)

If you’re afraid having your child “labeled” at age 2 or 3 may dampen his chances for academic success on down the road, let me give you a little heads up. Keeping your child from getting additional help for a real developmental or educational need is what will hurt his chances more than any “word” someone could write down on his “record.” It’s a rare occasion when a school system or any other payor “fights” to keep a child in services when their parents don’t want them to continue. It always seems to be the other way around. Parents are “fighting” to get their child additional services that nobody wants to fund. No “diagnosis” or “label” will outlast our child’s improvement. When your child is ready, most school districts and insurance companies are more than happy to quit paying for extra services.

That being said, having or not having a specific diagnosis does not change how I or any other experienced therapist would provide treatment for a child. Good therapists look for a child’s weaknesses and needs, and use techniques to target those specific challenges, with or without a label. I have treated many children on my caseload who weren’t officially diagnosed as having autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, or other “scary” diagnoses for parents who weren’t ready or willing to hear those words.

Fortunately services can be obtained for young children without an official “reason” beyond developmental delay until a child is older. I always hope for the child’s sake that the parent will be ready and willing to pursue additional testing at that point if the kid still needs it. As a parent, make sure that it’s not your own self-esteem you’re trying to protect by avoiding a correct diagnosis. If that’s the case, it’s your child who will suffer. Parenting a child with special needs is difficult, but not calling it what it is won’t make it any easier.



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  1. Ginger on April 7, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    I would like to ask if you could include information for children who are school aged. I know you said you deal with children up to 3. Can you recommend a site geared to older children? I have enjoyed this site and know parents who are hungry for information are enjoying your site as well. Thanks!!

  2. Laura on April 8, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Hi Ginger! My clinical experience is with babies and toddlers, so I would not feel comfortable writing about older children. Unfortunately I don’t know of a site similar to this one for school-aged kids, but if any other reader wants to post one, I’d be happy to take a look at it. Laura

  3. Melissa Haas on April 12, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Hi – I have 30 month old ID twin toddlers, they are having some issues with both receptive and expressive communication, but due to the environment they are in….I am a SAHM, father gone ALOT, no other children around, I think that may be a BIG part of the issue. How much could this be from being twins?

  4. Laura on April 13, 2008 at 7:28 am

    Melissa – First of all, I’m glad you are enjoying the site! As for your question about language delay and twins…. Researchers tell us that being a multiple increases your chance of having language delays, especially since so many multiples are born prematurely. Being a boy also increases your likelihood of having any issue developmentally.

    That being said, I have seen lots of twins and triplets do very well, so that in and of itself is usually not the only reason they are having difficulty learning to communicate. Over the years I have often been called in to see just one twin or two children of a set of triplets.

    Being around other children is NOT a factor in delayed language skills since babies and toddlers learn to communicate from adults, not peers.

    Actually your situation is IDEAL for being able to help your sons since you are not dividing your mommy time with other older (or younger) children, and you are so blessed to be able to stay home with them full-time. So continue to work hard everyday doing the things your SLP teaches you and the things you learn here on this site. You can do this! Let us know how else we can help you! Laura

  5. Kathi Schadt on April 14, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Hey Laura-
    I love your site! My son Carter was a late talker. Carter has hypotonia (low muscle tone) it affects the muscles in every part of his body- even his mouth. He was turning two when we started speech therapy. Before we started using the therapies you recommend on your site I can remember feeling like I was failing Carter as his verbal mediator. At the age where most toddlers are starting to babble and start their own language, usually understood only by their own family, we had no idea what Carter was trying to say. As his mom, I felt a particular sense of guilt. I should have known what my child was trying to say, but his sounds were indiscernible. Mama and milk, ball and any other b sound, etc., I couldn’t help him, but sign language did.
    When he began to asks for things using the signs we learned together it was such a sweet moment of victory for me. We could offer him choices, again using the signs. As he mastered a spoken word he would would eventually drop the sign. As he got older, more people were able to understand him and I didn’t have to translate his words as often. As we were better able to understand him, we were delighted to find out what a funny sense of humor he has. Now Carter is four and a half, he’s still in speech therapy (mostly for articulation.) This therapy works! I have a little boy who can tell twenty knock knock jokes to prove it.

  6. Sharon on June 4, 2009 at 12:59 am

    My son is now 31 month old. And he speaks more of the stuff he sees on TV like commercial. Sometimes he uttered words that we find out of this world. He composed few sentences expressing his need for sometime only. It really give a lot of pressure because his being compared with his cousins who by age of 2 can speak straightly. On the other way around he sung a lot of nursery rhymes that even lyrics are not that clear to hear yet he sung it correctly. He memorize his alphabet and count numbers from 1-20. He knew how to identify the parts of the body and knew a lot of animals sounds..I am just worried if there is really something wrong with my son.

  7. Laura on June 7, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    Sharon – I would definitely take him to be evaluated by a pediatric speech-language pathologist. By age 2 1/2 he should be using phrases he comes up with on his own consistently and spontaneously vs. speaking mostly with things he hears on videos. He does have some “red flag” characteristics for language delay – including splinter skills – meaning that he knows some things that are advanced for his age, yet he’s not exhibiting many basic skills that he should have mastered by now. I think you should trust your gut feeling and have him evaluated sooner rather than later. Parents rarely regret that they moved too quickly to have a child evaluated, but MANY regret that they waited so long. Good luck to you! Laura

  8. Lisa on October 28, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    My 26 year old son is currently getting speech therapy through EI. His receptive language seems are age-appropriate however, he is not using words to communicate (he only say ‘nana’ ‘mama’ and ‘dada’). He can make the connection between pictures and things around the house (looking for his soccer ball when he says a ball in a book). His therapist works on labeling objects during play, constantly repeating the words to see if he would try to imitate. My son gets frustrated and gives up instead of trying to imitate. At his age, I do know he should be using more words. What can I do to help my son? I am getting frustrated and I do not know how to help him. He was evaluated but not diagnosed. His hearing is fine and he has no medical conditions. Any suggestion, as to what could be wrong with my son?

  9. Lisa on October 28, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    I meant to say 26 month old. sorry

  10. Laura on October 28, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Lisa – I have some questions for you – will he imitate actions? Will he try fun play sounds like animal noises? Will he imitate other sounds like screaming, laughing, or fake sneezing/coughing? Have you tried signs with him to get his communication going? How does he respond to those?

    How fun are you all when you’re playing with him? Just modeling words to see if a child will imitate is… well, boring! Up the fun factor, and see if he doesn’t try to join in a little more. If you need more ideas for what this looks like in therapy, watch the clips from my DVDs.

    There are lots of articles here on the website about other things to try too, so read through the articles. I wouldn’t dare try to “diagnose” him since I haven’t seen him, but you may try looking at articles in the apraxia section for more ideas for diagnosis and especially treatment recommendations.

    And don’t forget to check out the DVDs so you can SEE maybe what are new ideas for working with him.

    Hope these ideas helped!! Laura

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