Is My Child’s Speech Normal?

My child’s speech & language skills… are they delayed?
by Michelle Turkoglu, Speech Therapist at ABS

A colleague of mine mentioned that when he meets his friends’ children or sees children out and about, their speech and language skills seem to differ greatly. The children are all around the same age and don’t appear to have any developmental delays such as Autism, syndromes or other disorders, so why is their language so different?

The easy answer is that there is a wide range of what is considered “normal” for speech, language, and communication development. And while that’s true, it doesn’t help parents, caregivers, teachers or anyone who works with children a good idea if the child needs therapy support or not.

Pediatricians, teachers, speech-therapists and the internet can all provide you with charts, graphs and lists of what is considered typical. While some of this information is accurate, you’ll find that the information can vary from one source to another. It also seems like people are hearing blanketed or general statements that don’t really give enough information. For example, some lists would state that the following milestones should occur between 1-2 years of age:

  • Understands “no”
  • Uses 10 to 20 words, including names
  • Combines two words
  • Waves good-bye
  • Makes the “sounds” of familiar animals
  • Gives a toy when asked
  • Brings object from another room when asked
  • Uses words to make wants known
  • Points to body parts such as eyes, nose, mouth

There is nothing wrong with this information. All these milestones should in fact occur around age 1 and before or right around 2 years. But if an 11-month-old child can do all these things proficiently and a 23-month-old child is just learning these skills, should both be considered “typical”? If we simply based our evaluation off of the “list” we could come to a few conclusions:

  • the 11-month old is advanced
  • the 23-month old is delayed
  • both children are “fine” because there is a wide range of typical

As a speech-language pathologist, I think that these lists can be helpful guidelines but really should be interpreted by a professional with advanced training in child development (SLPs, developmental pediatricians, pediatric neuropsychologist, etc.). The professional that you seek help from should spend some time with the child and engage with him or her in a variety of activities in order to get a good sense of how they communicate and interact. Videos of children at home or in various settings can provide really great insight into how a child is communicating in various environments.

In the case of the 10-month old vs. the 23-month-old, there could be so many other conclusions drawn once he or she is evaluated by a professional. For instance, the 11-month-old uses well over 10-20 words but all those words are related to a single topic. He or she waves goodbye but only when told to do so and does not look at the person when waving. He or she engages in sing-along but only 1-2 songs from their favorite TV show. They can identify and get items for you but maybe they need the direction repeated several times along with gestures and pointing to understand. So while they can perform the skills that are listed, the manner in which they are performed may be considered “atypical”.

The 23-month-old child may in fact be “delayed” if the listed skills are just beginning to emerge. The extent of the delay would need to be examined. The delay may need therapy to help him or her “catch up”. The delay may be pervasive (continue on) and would definitely need intervention to help him or her develop language skills. On the other hand, maybe the 23-month-old was adopted and is just starting to hear and learn English. Maybe the child’s overall communication, social interaction and other developmental skills are on-track. If we just looked at the “list”, we would consider the child to be delayed or disordered, when in fact, they could just be acquiring a new language (which is not a disorder of speech-language skills).

So if you are thinking that your child may have speech-language-communication delays, getting a professional opinion is the best option. A pediatric speech-language pathologist should be able to determine if your child would benefit from starting therapy right away or explain why he/she thinks that your child does not need therapy.

One final note…As a parent or caregiver, you know your child best. Ask lots of questions. Let the professional know that you’ve done your research and explain why you are concerned. An open dialogue will answer the most questions and help understanding for both the professional and parent.