Syed asks, “My son is 2 1/2 and does not talk yet. He has no words, only babbling. He has also signs of autism like hand-flapping, walking on his tip-toes, and other forms of stimming. He is registered at our local special needs office where we live. We are very worried about him and my question is: at what age should he start to talk?”
Hi Syed! I’m so glad you’re seeking help since you have concerns about your son’s development. I encourage you, and all parents, to follow your instincts when you feel something isn’t quite right with your child’s development.
Different specialists may have different answers for exactly when a child should start talking. However, research shows that children typically begin producing babbling sounds in infancy. These sounds may be things like “baba” “gaga” “ooh”, etc. Then words begin to emerge, many times with things like “mama”, “dada”, “papa” or “ba-ba” at first.
When examining childhood development we look to standardized tests which are widely used to assess children with autism or other developmental delays. These assessments measure developmental milestones. Here’s a breakdown of what some of the most reputable assessments say in regards to language:
Developmental Assessment of Young Children-Second Edition (DAYC-2)
Children between the ages of 2 and 3 years old should use at least 50 words spontaneously. By this age children also have some 2-word phrases, as well as emerging 3-word sentences.
Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-Second Edition ( Vineland-II )
Children should have 50 recognizable words at age 2. They may begin asking questions, and using short, simple sentences.
Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP)
By 30 months a child should be able to label 200 items and/or actions. Most children, by this age, can also ask for at least 20 items.
As you can see by these various assessments, children your son’s age typically have a variety of words and even some short sentences, for example “More juice” or “go bye-bye.” Since your son does not have any words yet here are some things you can do to help evoke language.
1. Work on imitation. Before children learn to echo the sounds of others they learn to imitate body movements. Have your son imitate basic actions like: clapping hands, knocking, patting head, patting tummy, blowing kisses, etc. You will say “Do this” or “Copy me” then perform an action. Ideally your son should copy you and perform the action as well. However, if he doesn’t respond you can prompt him. Make sure to provide lots of praise when he copies you, even if you have to prompt it. You can also use objects to promote imitate such as: rolling a ball, pushing a car, stacking a block, etc. Keep providing lots of imitation opportunities because this is a prerequisite for language.
2. Sing! Sing songs with your son and provide opportunities for him to fill-in-the-blank. That may be something like “Twinkle Twinkle Little…” Pause for a second or two and give him a chance to fill in the word “Star.” Even if he just makes a sound, that’s okay! Or if he says nothing at all, that’s okay too. Keep singing and give him another chance. Some great song ideas are: ABCs, Wheels on the Bus, Row Your Boat, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Twinkle Twinkle, Clean Up, Slippery Fish, and Happy and You Know It.
3. Use what he loves. Maybe it’s Elmo, or cookies, or his favorite blanket. Use these items to try to get him to ask for them. When he reaches for the preferred item, or shows interest in it, you may ask him “What did you want?” Then you can prompt the answer “Elmo.” If your son makes a sound, give it to him. He may make a sound that’s completely unrelated to “Elmo,” but that’s okay. Even if he says “bah,” give him the Elmo. Once that’s consistent you can push him a little more to say something closer to the word. Maybe he can say “Oh” for “Elmo,” for example. Then, only give him Elmo if he says “Oh,” and not when he says “bah.” Continue working on this until he gets the work “Elmo.” By gradually changing the expectation (accepting any sound at first, then eventually expecting the full word), you are helping your son to understand that language is required to get something he wants. At the same time, you’re making it easy enough for him that he won’t become too frustrated and give up.
4. Reward him for making sounds. We want to teach him that making sounds is GOOD! Any time you hear a sound, acknowledge it. Talk to him, praise him, and give him affection. Send the message that he is doing a great job any time he tries to communicate by making a sound.
5. Interact with him. The more you and other family members talk to him and engage with him, the better. Limit technology time (television, iPad, iPhone, video-games, etc). Those things don’t allow for true interaction and they are one-sided forms of entertainment. Nothing is expected of him while he’s watching videos or playing games on electronics; he just gets to sit back and passively observe what happens. Whereas, when he’s playing with you or other, he’s an active participant who is expected to engage and respond.
Remember to focus on what skills and strengths your son has, and to set realistic goals for him and yourself. Many times parents are so concerned with what their children can’t do, that they miss out on what their child can do. Appreciate his successes and allow yourself to celebrate those victories no matter how small they may be. Lastly, I encourage all the families I work with to keep in mind that communication is not always verbal. Some children never speak using their mouths, but they can learn to communicate using sign language, picture icons, or electronic devices. Those methods of communication are just as valid as verbal language, and can help non-verbal people to function in their world. While I know most parents wish for their children to be able to talk, it’s vital to not discredit other forms of communication. Keep an open mind and remember to take notice of the progress your son makes along his journey.
We wish you the best as you continue on this roller-coaster of special needs parenting!
Angelina works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others facing similar challenges. Learn more about Angelina and her blog, The Autism Onion, and www.theautismonion.com or www.facebook.com/theautismonion
This article was featured in Issue 23 – Preparing for Tomorrow