My Late-Talking, Bilingual Child: Early Intervention and Speech Therapy

When I initially started this blog I thought it would be primarily focused on my son’s multi-lingual language acquisition. Little did I know that I was in for a much more intense experience as we encountered an actual speech delay. I’d like to share my experience not only as a written journal for myself, but for any other parents out there going through a similar scenario. Bear in mind, every family will approach this differently and you may disagree with me. But I think some parents will find reassurance in our story. I know I did while reading the accounts of other parents with late-talking children. I’ll try to summarize the whirlwind of what’s happened during the last several months into three sections: Early Intervention, Speech Therapy, and Where We are Now. 

Early Intervention

babytalk-mamaBy recommendation of my son’s pediatrician after his 24-month check-up,  I had him taken to be assessed for “early intervention,” particularly to see if he qualified for speech therapy. I knew he would, because at the time he had only a few words under his belt. Some Turkish. Some English. But not enough by typical American standards (I say this because in other countries they tend not to jump into speech therapy as early as we do in the U.S.)

The experience was…interesting.

We entered into a small room, much like a police interrogation room you’d see on TV with three solid walls and on the fourth, a one-way mirror. In the place of angry policemen were two friendly therapists sitting on the floor, both English-only speakers, although they did have Spanish-English therapists available (but no Turkish-English, of course).

Despite the fact that speech was the only concern, a child must be assessed for all areas of development to help diagnose any larger issues that may be at play. Part of the testing process involved getting him to move from one activity to another in order to test different developmental skills. This involved giving him one toy, taking it away and trying to get him to play with another toy. He kept up with this at first — but it didn’t last long.

When the evaluator gave him cars, which he loves, and then tried to get him to transition to another test with blocks — he wasn’t interested. After multiple failed attempts to get him to transition, he became frustrated and refused to do any other other tests thereafter. Because of this, he was marked as “severely delayed” in fine motor skills, despite the fact that she had actually witnessed him demonstrate multiple tasks (outside of the test itself) that led her to believe there were no substantial concerns in his fine motor abilities. However, she had to leave a score in the standardized test based on what she saw during the test activity — or didn’t see, rather. While she didn’t recommend any formal therapy for this, she noted that he had “behavioral issues” in only partaking in activities “the way he wanted,” which I was advised to address.

After reading the books, Late-Talking Children, by Thomas Sowell, and Late-Talking Children: A Sympton or a Stage?, by Stephen M. Camarata, I found that this was a very common experience for parents with children who spoke late, but didn’t have any other developmental delays. They are often boys who are shy, and exhibit a strong will. They also tend to be sent to early intervention, and perform abysmally on these standardized tests. Some have since questioned the effectiveness of testing and subsequent diagnoses on such small children, as many are mistakenly diagnosed with autism and receive unnecessary “special” treatment in educational settings that set them back much further. In reality, most of these children start to truly communicate at the same level of their peers by the age of four, and some of them not only catch up, but later exhibit exceptional abilities in math and music.

In order to qualify for early intervention therapy, a child has to test into the “mildly delayed” range for two categories, or “severely delayed” for one category. Labeled as mildly delayed in expressive language and “severely delayed” in fine motor skills, my son was qualified for therapy.

Speech Therapy

We decided to opt for speech therapy, but before we could really get started, another assessment was required. This one went a little better as it was conducted in our home.

In my humble opinion, speech therapy is not so fruitful in the sessions themselves, but it does provide parents with the mindset and tools to encourage speech in their little ones during their day-to-day lives. That’s why it was OK that the sessions were in all English, we could employ the techniques in both languages. Our therapist was very nice and provided me with a word list and resources to learn signs which she believed would help him communicate. We did find this to be helpful, particularly for words like “help.” Most of his words were nouns, and if he did need assistance he might just grunt and point at you. Now, he had an expression.

However, each sign took some time to develop. He knew when something was being “taught” to him, and he didn’t like it. He would often just give up on what he wanted if I kept asking him to make a new sign. This would go on for for days. He’d dramatically sigh, hang down his head and walk away from me. And then right when I felt like I wanted to give up, he would suddenly produce the new sign. Usually with a smile and giggle.

The therapist also provided some basic fundamentals to encourage speech, like withholding to create a need for communication, repeating words up to three times with emphasis (but no more than that), and holding a desired object close to the mouth while saying the word so he could see it being formed: like “Oh, you want milk?” *holds milk up to face* Milk? Milk?

She also recommended to provide an uninterrupted 30-40 minutes of play on the floor with him every day, and each time to focus on two-to-three words.

After a couple of months he warmed up to her and she saw how much he was able to do and how rapidly his progress was coming along despite the short, intermittent visits. At 26 months, she believed he was on the verge of a “language explosion” because of his responsiveness. Sometimes he would look her in the eyes and just rattle off a bunch of nonsense gibberish, albeit with natural intonations and with an occasional word here and there.

Unfortunately, we moved to a new location and her services were no longer available. However, by the time a new therapist was presented to us, we decided not to continue with speech therapy. This was partly due to the cost, but also because the greatest tools we received from therapy came from the first two visits. After that it seemed more like check-ins to see his progress, and we’d tend to go over the same tactics. Because we had sought out professional advice, and had acquired numerous resources to help guide us along the way, I was confident that in my son’s particular case, we could handle it. He had already shown a lot of progress from our efforts. If a major regression happened or his development slowed down, I would surely open that door again.

Where We Are Now

toddlertalkMy son is now at 28 months, and while he’s still behind compared to other kids his age, he’s made major developments in his speech. It is as if a switch suddenly went off in his head. Where before he would never try to imitate new sounds he heard for the first time, he will now suddenly give it a try (Although never on command. Only when he wants. “Strong willed” they say?)  He’s still mostly speaking in English although a random Turkish word will suddenly come. He loves imitating expressions the most, but has started adding some verbs to his vocabulary like “go” and appending multiple adjectives to his nouns, like “big blue car.” He can also point to (some) numbers and say them, as well as the English alphabet. Also, the words he would sign before like “help,” “thank you,” “please,” “again,” “more,” “up,” and “all-done” he will now speak — sometimes still with a sign, sometimes not.

Before starting his new preschool where he goes part-time, I had to fill out an application form where I noted some “behavioral” issues he may have in regard to transitions, as the therapist had indicated during his early intervention assessment. After he started attending class, one of the teachers pulled me aside and said she kept looking for signs, but she never saw any of the concerns I had indicated on my form. He had no issues moving to new activities. She even said that on his first day, he had acted as if he had been there for months.

Maybe he grew out of it in this short period? It’s possible. But maybe he just didn’t like being in a small room with two strangers who kept taking toys away from him. I’m no expert. Just a parent. But right now we’re giving our boy more time, more patience, less standardized tests, and lots of love and support. While we’re not out of the woods yet, right now I have a positive outlook.

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