What is Language Delay in Childhood?
Language delay in childhood is when a child is speaking on a delayed time frame or not at all.
Language is a very important part of your child’s early development. If they have delayed language, your child may be able to talk, but their speech is developing much later than expected. Although not every child will learn to talk at the same age, nine-month-old babies should be babbling, one-year-olds should have a word or more, and two-year-old toddlers should put words together. Three-year-olds and older should all be talking. A language delay is present if your child is behind schedule with these important milestones.
A language delay at 24 months is the absence of 2-word-utterances in spoken vocabulary. At 24 months and older, your child should use many single words (more than 20) and use at least a few phrases like “more milk, mama,” “want cracker,” “off socks, daddy,” “oh, mama, a plane,” and “where’s cars?” An individual with only a handful of single word utterances at 24 months or older has delayed speech and would be a great candidate for early intervention.
Symptoms of Language Delay in Children
- Not speaking: your child if not speaking at all by age 2 has a language delay
- First words are late and big: your child’s first word is refrigerator, and it comes out perfectly pronounced. Most children say something like ball, dog, or dada as a first word, so if your child did not talk until age 3 and said something very unique, this is noteworthy
- Reverts to repeating themselves when excited: your child has a limited number of words in their vocabulary and often repeats a word or phrase over and over
- Echoes a common line or phrase of a movie: your child runs around the house saying the same thing ad nauseum like “Speed, I am speed!” Or your child can sing a whole song, or say a nursery rhyme but does not speak to request and to communicate
- Echolalia: your child is repeating sounds and words that they hear someone else say like an echo but is not talking functionally. We want early language to be with the purpose of communication and to get needs met
Causes of Language Delay in Childhood
Autism Spectrum Disorder
A diagnosis of ASD includes social communication challenges and restricted or repetitive behaviors (RRB). Here, language delay can be quite common. Sometimes children with autism speak later than expected and start talking in full sentences or use big words. Often, the communication is better around a child’s interests and is less functional. Functional language includes things like ‘juice please’ or ‘mama hold’ because a child is getting a need met.
A diagnosis of expressive language disorder includes difficulty with fluent expression and communication. A child who is delayed in talking is not expressing themselves verbally. Here, we expect lots of facial expressions, gestures and pointing, and nonverbal communication. This child is different from the ASD profile mentioned above because social connections are not hard for this child and the need is only verbal communication. This difference can be tough to distinguish.
A child with an intellectual disability may have some trouble with communication because of verbal comprehension challenges. Children with intellectual disabilities often meet developmental milestones more slowly. When it is hard to understand and process language, children may fall behind. Here, you may also see really nice nonverbal communication like pointing, smiling, or gesturing even when verbal communication is behind.
Other genetic conditions or developmental disorders
A child may have a genetic condition or developmental disorder that results in language difficulties. Brain differences can impact communication, so it will be important to have a close relationship with your specialist or pediatrician if you think your child may have such a condition.
What to Do About Language Delay in Childhood
To improve language a parent can do several things.
First, use and model language for your child. Encourage speech development by labeling things in the environment, in picture books, and out the window. Point out toys of interest, for example, cars, planes, and boats if your child loves vehicles or different animals if your child loves those. Make eye contact with your child and encourage them to say things with you.
Read to your child. Research shows that talking and reading to your child are the most important things a parent can do in the early years. Children whose parents do this have higher language and ability levels. When you read a book, ask questions. Help your child point to the pictures and guess what happens next in the story.
Work on receptive language. Children should be able to point to body parts, find and bring you toys and balls, and follow one-step directions. Work on these skills with your child. Good receptive language or understanding is a great sign that your child will get that expressive language with support.
Contact child find. Engage with the free services that are provided for preschool-aged children. If your 2-year-old is not talking, Child Find can provide speech and language services and other kinds of therapy. There is no need to delay seeking this support. You may find your child catches up quickly, and they are more prepared for preschool and kindergarten.
When to Seek Help for Language Delay
When language delay impacts your child’s communication or social skills, it is a good idea to seek help. If your child is still behind in language after you have worked with them, it is important to have professionals engaged. A speech-language pathologist and an ABA therapist are the best professionals to help here.
Of course, you want to be sure you have a current hearing test and rule out any medical cause too. If your child had a language delay but has since made progress, it is just helpful to know that language delay in early childhood can be an indicator of autism. If your child has some other symptoms in socializing and communicating (particularly poor nonverbal communication like gestures and facial expressions) you should pursue an evaluation to rule out an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Often, families reporting a language delay share that mom or dad had that too, that it is typical for the family. Please get it checked out even if that is the case. Language is so important to day-to-day life and catching a challenge like autism earlier than later can make a big difference.
Professional Resources on Language Delay
- Testing psychologist: seek a comprehensive neuropsychological or psychological evaluation to look at your child’s language development, cognition, social skills, and behavior. This process will help you obtain a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses and isolate areas of strength and those to address.
- Speech and language pathologist: seek therapy with a speech therapist to work on your child’s language skills. Speech may be available through Child Find. You can ask your preschool, local school district, or your pediatrician to connect you with Child Find resources for your area.
- School psychologist: seek to involve the school team to see if your child needs support through multi-tiered supports, a Section 504 Plan, or an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Similar Conditions to Language Delay
- Restricted interests: a child has interests in a select set of specific topics or special interests
- Echoed and scripted language: a child uses language that is echoed from others or from TV, movies, books, etc.
- Parallel play: a child plays beside another child, not with the other child
- Social presence: a child is comfortable with other people, being near peers, and not hiding or avoiding
- Sharing and showing: a child bringing things of their interest to peers or adults for the purpose of social connection
- Expressive language discrepancy: a child who talks much better than they listen
- Functional communication: a child who can communicate with others in order to get basic wants and needs met
Resources on Language Delay in Childhood
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Fein, Deborah (2011). The Neuropsychology of Autism.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s: Revised edition.
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.
Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
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