The Hanen Centre

The Hanen Centre

July 15, 2011 09:00 ET

A Closer Look at the Late Talker Study: Why Parents Should Beware of a 'Wait and See' Approach (The Hanen Centre)

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - July 15, 2011) - The results of a recent Australian study on the emotional outcomes of late talking toddlers have been reported under headlines such as, "Late Talkers Do Fine as They Grow." The Hanen Centre, a not-for-profit organization specializing in young children with language delays (including those who are late talkers) cautions that such headlines might give false assurance to parents who notice that their child is late to talk.

The new study, led by psychologist Andrew Whitehouse at the University of Western Australia in Perth, showed that there were no lasting behavioral or emotional problems associated with late talking (the study showed that behaviour problems had disappeared by age 5 and were not seen in any of the follow-up assessments). However, news headlines such as "Late-Talking Toddlers Likely to Be Fine by Age 5" may be misleading because the study measured behavioral and emotional outcomes only; the children were not assessed for language outcomes, so we cannot make the assumption that they went on to be "fine" in this area of development.

It is known that 70-80% of late talking toddlers will outgrow a language delay if it is an expressive delay only (i.e. involves only spoken language, with no delays in comprehension and/or social use of language)(i). While this is encouraging, it still means that a significant proportion (20-30%) will not catch up to their peers. Research has shown that, when children don't catch up in their language skills, they have persistent language difficulties, as well as difficulty with reading and writing when they get to school(ii).

Elaine Weitzman, speech-language pathologist and Executive Director of The Hanen Centre, says that while a 'wait and see' approach for late talkers may be appropriate in the area of behavior, it is not advised in the area of language development. "It is very difficult to predict which late talkers will catch up and which will fall into the 20-30% group who don't," Weitzman cautions. "A 'wait and see' approach simply delays treatment that can make a huge difference to a child who needs it." When parents notice that their toddler isn't reaching the appropriate language milestones for his age, Weitzman recommends that they get an assessment from a licensed speech-language pathologist.

Research clearly shows that the earlier a child with a delay receives help, the better his or her outcomes(iii). In Ontario, the Ministry of Children and Youth has recognized this urgency by significantly increasing its funding for speech and language services in an effort to lower the age of referral to age two and to ensure that every child arrives at school ready and able to learn.

It is also important that parents take part in their child's early intervention to ensure the best possible outcome. Studies have shown that parent-administered interventions help young children who are late talkers to start talking and move into using short sentences, whereas a no-treatment group did not show the same improvement. This shows that parents can learn to help their own children if they are taught how. Based on these positive findings, The Hanen Centre developed a program for parents of late talking toddlers, called Target Word®, in which parents learn to use language building strategies that increase their child's expressive vocabulary during everyday family activities.

"We know that the window of opportunity is greatest when a child is very young," says Weitzman. "If a toddler is late in his or her language development, parents will never regret acting early. They might, however, regret acting too late."

The Hanen Centre is a not-for-profit charitable organization, recognized as an international leader in early language intervention through parent- and educator-focused programs. For more information, visit www.hanen.org.

(i) Ellis EM, Thal DJ. (2008) Early language delay and risk for language impairment. Perspect Lang Learn Ed., 15(3): 93-100.

(ii) Sharma M., Purdy, S.C. & Kelly, A.S. (2009). Comorbidity of auditory processing, language, and reading disorders. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 52(3),706-22.

(iii) Rosetti, L.M. (1996). Communication intervention: Birth to three. San Diego: Singular Publishing.

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