Can’t vs. Won’t
Advice for Parents of Late Talkers or Toddlers with Speech Delays
I rarely…no make that NEVER, think that a child doesn’t talk because he’s stubborn or lazy. I get so frustrated when parents tell me this, or worse, when I hear another therapist say this. If you have thought this about your child, or if a teacher, a physician, or a speech-language pathologist (GASP!) is telling you this, please re-evaluate your situation.
The truth is…
When kids can talk, they do talk.
It makes life so much easier for them, and for you!
Once they figure that out and come together cognitively (understand language), neurologically (can plan and send the message they want to convey), and physiologically (perform the complex processes that are physically required to produce sound), they do learn to speak.
Sometimes parents think that because a child can say a few words, he can say any word. They think he is somehow “holding out on them” when he’s “refusing” to say new words.
Children at age 2 or even 3 are not capable of the advanced cognitive reasoning that must occur for this kind of mental manipulation. Please don’t convince yourself otherwise.
Some parents would rather see their children as “bad” vs. realizing that they have a true developmental problem, and I am always confused by this approach.
Most children who don’t talk have no choice in the matter. If they could talk, but actually have made the choice not to talk, they would be diagnosed with selective mutism, and this diagnosis is very, very rare. Selective mutism requires that a child use language that is typical for his age in at least one setting. If a child has used a couple of words occasionally or even pops out a phrase now and then, but otherwise doesn’t talk, she still does not meet the criteria for this diagnosis.
When a kid defaults to the same word over and over in lieu of using new ones, motor planning problems (apraxia) may be the underlying reason. The child is neurologically “looping” a word he can say. “Default” is an accurate choice of words here, because that’s what’s happened. He can’t say the new word. This is very different from he won’t say it.
The problem could be due to cognition. The child doesn’t understand very many words, so she hangs on to the word or words she can say and uses them over and over instead of saying new words. Teach her to understand new words, and she will begin to say those too.
The problem may be related to issues we see with a child who may eventually be diagnosed with ASD or autism spectrum disorders. A particular word may feel good to say or sound appealing to him, so he says the same word repetitively. Or a child may hum nonstop. Because he’s somewhat verbal, a parent assumes he can talk and is purposefully not saying something else. This is a very specific issue, usually attributed to echolalia, rather than “choosing” not to say other words.
I’ve seen other scenarios too. No matter what’s going on with a particular child, the bottom line is this:
Making a distinction between can’t and won’t is very important, and I BEG moms of children that I see as clients to change the way they think about late talking. Without even meaning to, we often treat children differently when we view developmental issues as behavioral (“He just won’t say it!”) vs. a true challenge (“He can’t say it!)
When we look at late talking as something a child can’t do (YET!), we try to help him and search for a solution. We uncover the reasons he’s not yet talking and more importantly, we find strategies that are successful.
If we think a child’s speech delay is because he won’t do it, we may throw up our hands and walk away. We may give up thinking, “He’ll talk when he’s ready,” or “I’m helpless. I’ve run out of ideas.”
Or we may push and push and push to get OUR way so that talking and communicating become a power struggle. Nobody wins those battles.
When I work with a toddler like this on my caseload, I keep things super fun so they WANT to participate and actually, so irresistible they can’t help but play with me. I model, model, model lots of play sounds and exclamatory words like animal sounds and fun words like “Wow!” and “Whee!” and “Uh oh.”
When a child is ready, we bump it up to include tons of single words without adding too much pressure to “perform.”
When a child is a little further along, I offer a variety of choices for motivating items (such as their favorite things to eat, play, and d0) so that they are somewhat forced to respond to get what they really, really, really want.
Even before moving forward with those good ideas, I always teach another way to communicate, whether it is with simple gestures, signs, or pictures.
Along with changing a parents’ mindset when it comes to the reasons behind late talking, these strategies can make the difference with a kid who seems like he won’t talk.
For more about this topic and to find ways to help your child, please see the full listing of my products from teachmetotalk.com here.