Late talkers do fine as they grow up: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In good news to parents of late talkers, an Australian study shows a slow start on language is unlikely to have lingering effects on kids’ mental health.

Researchers followed late talkers into their teens and found the kids were no more likely to be shy, depressed or aggressive than their peers as they grew up.

That means a “wait-and-see” approach may be just fine for toddlers with a language lag, as long as they develop typically in other areas, the Australian team reports in the journal Pediatrics.

“This data is reassuring,” said Julia Irwin, who studies language development at Haskins Laboratories, a non-profit research institute in New Haven, Connecticut. “But parents will need to pay attention to other troubling symptoms of either psychosocial problems or language and reading problems.”

In an email to Reuters Health, Irwin said late talkers often have some language or reading problems later on, which may influence school readiness.

Between seven percent and 18 percent of children have language delays at two years, although most catch up by the time they start school. Some research has suggested that these toddlers may face psychological problems, but whether that matters down the road has been unclear.

The new study, led by psychologist Andrew Whitehouse at the University of Western Australia in Perth, is the first to track late talkers over the long haul.

The researchers tapped into data on more than 1,400 two-year-olds, whose parents had filled out a language development survey asking about the words their child would use spontaneously. A two-year-old typically says a few hundred words, but there is a lot of variation.

About one out of every 10 two-year-olds in the study was a late talker, scoring in the lowest 15 percent on a list of 310 common words.

The slower toddlers also appeared to have more psychological problems, according to questions on a child behavior checklist that parents answered. For instance, 13 percent of the late talkers had “internalizing” behavior -- such as being shy, sad or underactive -- compared to eight percent of their faster-talking peers.

But that difference had vanished at age five, when then parents were approached again. And it didn’t reappear for as long as the kids were followed, up until age 17.

According to Whitehouse and his colleagues, that hints the reason more late talkers had behavioral problems early on is likely because they are frustrated by not being able to communicate effectively -- not because there is something wrong with their brains.

One expert, who was not linked to the study, pointed out that it would have been helpful to know when the slower kids caught up with their typically developing peers.

“‘Wait and see’ may be okay at 2 years, but there should be a critical time after which language delays should be treated,” said child psychologist Gail Ross, adding that age two-and-a-half or three might be appropriate.

“The crucial question is, at what point is ‘wait and see’ no longer a valid approach?” said Ross, of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, in an email to Reuters Health.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online July 4, 2011.