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Late Talker or Autism?

Should I be concerned that my toddler isn’t talking?

As parents, we know that our children go through phases and it’s often not worth worrying too much about it.  When they’re learning to walk, we let them fall – it’s part of the process.  They’ll experience heartbreak, boredom, and disappointment – all par for the course.  We try not to make a big deal out of little things at the risk of becoming helicopter parents.  But when it comes to a child’s language development, is there such thing as being too concerned?  When is a child just a “late-talker” and when is it a red flag for something more?

First, let’s define what a late talker is:  By 18 months, a child should have 10-20 words.  By the age of 2, they should be putting them together in 2 word phrases (eg: “Mommy go”).  There are many children I’ve seen who really are just late talkers and there’s no cause for concern.  Some speech therapy might help but these kiddos usually talk when they’re ready.  But there are children for whom the late talking is unfortunately a sign of a larger issue and speech therapy alone is not enough.  So how can we tell the difference?


5 signs of more than just “late talking”

This list is not exhaustive, there may be more signs.  Also, it usually takes more than 1 of these signs to be concerned.

  1. Lack of engagement

When an adult or another child tried to engage with the child, he will turn away and is not as willing to interact.  Joint attention is more than just eye contact – do they reference important adults in their life by glancing in their direction?  Are they sharing experiences with important caregivers around them?  Is it hard to get a shared smile out of them?

Tip: Try putting something silly on top of your head and watch if your child attends and notices


  1. Repetitive behaviour

This can mean playing with the same toy over and over, pacing in circles, or repetitive arm movements.  Granted, many children have a favourite toy or activity and that’s okay.  Look out for patterns and routines that your child continuously engages in.

Tip: When your child is playing with a preferred toy, will he allow you to join in and control the play.  Example: if he’s playing trains, you take a turn guiding it around the track!


  1. Lack of non-verbal communication

Adults and children communicate with more than words.  There’s pointing, head nodding, gestures, etc. A child who is just a late talker will often still communicate with gestures.  For example, when they want milk, they will pull their caregiver over to the counter and point to what they want. They are able to get their needs met because there is reciprocity between child and caregiver even without words.  It would be cause for concern if your child is not able to point, gesture, or communicate non-verbally.

Tip: Place your child’s preferred toy up high and see if they can get you to get it for them (eg: by pointing, gesturing, etc).


  1. Inconsistent ability to follow instructions

When the child is told to “Go get your shoes” – does she follow right away?  Or does it often take 2-3 repetitions of the same instruction (and possibly some prompting) to get follow-through?  Children are not robots and often do not follow instructions right away.  But by the age of 2, they should be able to “give..” items, “go get” simple items – especially if it’s fun!

Tip: Take your child’s favourite snack and put it 3-5 feet away.  Tell him to “go get your snack” and when he does – he gets to eat it!


  1. Possible negative behaviour

Along with the lack of words, are there other negative behaviours that the child exhibits?  For example, biting, hitting, kicking, screaming, etc.  Is the child very sensitive to touch or sound or has other sensory needs?  Many children exhibit negative behaviours within reason.  If you’re finding it difficult to get regular, everyday things done – this may be more than just “terrible twos”.  Children with a language difficulty show more negative behaviour because they may not have learned a more functional way to get their needs met.  Screaming is their form of communication.  There’s also an element of frustration about being in an environment that is difficult to understand and navigate.

Tip: Jot down the amount of your child’s outburst and tantrums on a piece of paper – is it getting worse or better?


What now?

Check out this online resource  – Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised

If you are concerned, don’t wait.  It doesn’t hurt to get a professional opinion.  Your pediatrician is a great place to start but sometimes they won’t pick up on subtle behaviour cues in a 10 minute visit.  A pediatrician who specializes in child development may be able to give you a better idea of your child’s strengths and weaknesses and then point you in the right direction.  If they do recommend ABA therapy, contact a BCBA in your area to get a program up and running.   There’s no harm in doing too much to get your little one’s language jumpstarted.  Early intervention is the best kind!

Read our post on how Picture Communication Systems Support Talking!

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