SALT LAKE CITY — Shawn Walker doesn't talk much. He's 3 years old and, like any toddler, he's busy. He's smart too, but he just doesn't share what is on his mind most of the time. His mother, Rebecca, of West Valley City, is not really worried about him though.
For parents of late talkers, Andrew Whitehouse's study in the coming August issue of Pediatrics may bring comfort, or to parents like Walker, reassure her of what she already knew. Whitehouse and his colleagues found that children who do not speak by the age of 2 — an estimated 15 percent of the population — typically catch up behaviorally and emotionally by adulthood.
Other research has shown similar evidence, but this is one of the first to study a large group of late-talking children from the time they are toddlers into their teens.
"Having a child who is not talking as much as other children can be very distressing for parents. Our findings suggest that parents should not be overly concerned that late-talking at age 2 years will result in enduring language and psychological difficulties for the child," said the study's lead author, Andrew Whitehouse, an associate professor and reader in developmental psychopathology at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia.
What this study may give to parents is a compass to use when trying to sort through the information available about their children's condition, whether at their own hands or unsolicited, and deciding what their children need.
"There's a lot of noise parents have to contend with when their kids are not keeping up with the neighbor's kid," said Sean Redmond, University of Utah associate professor of speech and language pathology. "Late talkers make up about 15 percent of the population, and from that 15 percent identified at age 2, about 70 percent of them will be caught up."
Walker said that after she opened up and began talking about her son's delayed speech, she found others shared her experience. She feels confident that Shawn will be fine and that he's happy. Most importantly, she has been able to find hope.
"I worried that I wasn't pushing him hard enough, that I wasn't working with him enough," Walker said. "But finding people with the same experience, I've thought, 'Well I'm just worrying about nothing' and seeing his development isn't behind. I know there's nothing wrong with him developmentally. It's helped knowing that other people have seen the same thing."
Though the findings can comfort parents, the researchers remind them that there is considerable evidence linking language impairment and psychiatric problems.
"It's a symptom like having a headache. Most headaches aren't anything serious and if they last long enough you can take medication and it will go away, and in some late talkers that is all they need, a little booster shot of speech therapy and the outcome is a positive one," Redmond said. "But headaches can be a symptom of something much more serious."
The New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association agrees with Redmond that a "little booster shot" may be all some of these children need.
"Late talkers receiving intervention by a speech-language pathologist over a short period of time showed improved language skills (vocabulary, production of sentences, speech-sound production) as compared with late talkers who did not receive intervention," it said in its report "Late Talkers: A Variation of Normal Development?"
When late talking is a sign of a bigger problem, whether autism, voice problems, aphasia, language-based learning difficulties, or deafness, early intervention may be necessary for some, and in the case of deafness, that intervention may mean that parents learn sign language.
Flavia Fleischer, a Utah Valley University linguist and deaf studies professor, said that unlike those other problems, deafness should be treated linguistically rather than pathologically.
"Deaf children's access to language cannot be fully guaranteed through spoken language," she said. "It is with signed language. So, it does not matter if they speak or do not speak, the access to language in whatever modality is what makes a world of difference."
Not all children experience language delays in the same way, and for late talkers who begin speaking and catching up on their own, Redmond believes preschool is the best chance for them to get back on track.
"How would you optimize outcomes for all kids in a way that doesn't create a self-fulfilling prophecy? Parents are worried about their kids being labeled and having teachers treating them differently, and don't necessarily want to jump on board with early intervention. … Preschool is really where you're going to have the best chance to get these kids on track," he said.
For children who hear and whose difficulties go beyond speaking, early intervention could be necessary to help get them on track. Other studies say that every child who experiences delays should have access to early-intervention services.
Though parents should tread with caution and look for signs of additional problems, Whitehouse's study adds an element of hope to the literature about late talkers.
Walker, who watched Shawn sing "Head, shoulder, knees and toes" in his babbled speech and point to the appropriate parts of his body as he sang, sees evidence of Whitehouse's findings in her boy.
"He will probably just take a little longer to be able to speak well, but I don't think it will hold him back at all," she said.