“My 2 ½-year-old son knows all the alphabets and can count till 50. He can even name the capitals of many countries. But he only points to things when he wants something.” Many parents nowadays have similar complaints of delayed speech and language development in children. On probing further, it is most often found that these children have frequent tantrums. A child’s inability to adequately express himself/ herself can lead to a wide range of possible behavioral issues.”

What is Normal Speech and Language Development?

Children follow a certain pattern in their speech and language development. They first start cooing and babbling at around 6 months of age. They also start using eye contact, pointing, and gestures to communicate. At around one year of age, they speak their first word. They continue to learn new words, phrases, and sentences through positive interactions with the environment. There is a normal age range within which children acquire speech and language skills. Some children tend to achieve these milestones at the earlier end of the age limit while others tend to achieve it at the later end. The first three years of a child’s life are the most important period for acquiring speech and language skills because the brain is still developing and maturing during this period.

What is Delayed Speech and Language Development?

A speech and language delay is when children may follow typical development patterns but they achieve the milestones at a slower rate than their peers. Identifying objects by their name, understanding what is spoken, naming things, are all important. But children must also learn to communicate their needs using the words they already know. Failure to do so is considered a delay. There are various causes for a delay in speech, language, and communication. It could be due to Hearing Impairment, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual Disability, Cerebral Palsy, etc., or lack of adequate stimulation.

What is Communicative Intent?

Children have an innate tendency to communicate. The child’s interest in communicating with others is called communicative intent. Even if they have delayed speech, many children still express a strong desire to communicate and interact with others and are motivated by the attention they receive. They may communicate through the use of eye gaze, smiles, crying, shouting, gestures, pointing, etc. even before they start speaking. They make efforts to imitate others. The absence of a desire to communicate is one of the key indicators of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What is Functional Communication?

Well-meaning parents often tend to provide children with a lot of books and material through which they learn many new words. A toddler is often given toys and books that teach alphabets and counting and other lexical categories. Sometimes a child who can name different cars or animals or fruits, may not know the names of common objects in their surroundings which they use daily. This may lead to the child using gestures and pointing to indicate his needs. In a younger child, this may be considered normal. But for an older child, this way of nonverbal communication is considered delayed.

Parents also tend to provide all that the child needs at regular intervals. For eg. food is provided even before the child is hungry. By fulfilling every need of the child before the child can ask for it, parents are unknowingly denying opportunities for the child to make requests. When we don’t provide adequate opportunities to communicate, children’s desire to communicate may diminish. And the child may fail to develop age-appropriate functional communication skills.

Encouraging Functional Communication

It is very important to provide adequate language stimulation with the primary goal being functional communication. Some ways to encourage functional communication are:

  • Create lots of opportunities for children to initiate communication.
  • If they ask for some food item or a drink, give tiny portions so that they get an opportunity to ask for more.
  • Wait for them to approach you for something instead of providing it beforehand.
  • Let them use gestures or pointing to express their needs if they can’t say words.
  • Keep things out of reach so that they can request the desired items.
  • Teach them functional vocabulary first, like objects in their surroundings, the food they eat, their toys, and other important things they need daily and most frequently used action words.
  • Ask more questions and give more choices for children to respond to.
  • The ABCs and 123s can wait until they acquire a set of functional vocabulary which they can use daily to interact with others.