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Speech Delays, Social Concerns and Giftedness

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: My daughter is five years old now. She was a very alert baby. We had difficult time making her sleep since she would wake up and cry for attention when the phone rings, or even when we talked quietly in the house. She was a very active toddler. We had a hard time when we first put her into a preschool classroom. She was not able to sit still during circle/story time and was not able to stay in one spot during snack time.

We got complains from her teachers always so I thought she's a trouble maker and was just a handful kid. When she reached 4, she began to settle down and was able to follow classroom routines better.

She was a late talker. She didn't really start talking until she's close to three. She understands commands and follows direction well when she's in a good mood. But when she's distracted or when she's not happy, she wouldn't respond at all. She's a very strong will kid. She started to talk a lot more clearly when she was four. However, her speech is still not very fluent. We speak only Chinese at home but I teach her vocabularies in English. So when she talks, it's a combination of both Chinese and English. We have no problem understanding her, but she seems to have problem expressing herself or answer questions in only one language, mainly English.

Due to her speech delay, I used to think that she was behind other kids. But she loves to read very much! And she has very good memory. I read a few new books to her once when she was 4 and later when she saw a picture somewhere, she was able to tell me from which book as well as from which page she saw the picture before. I thought she was lying at the beginning. But the she proved herself right by picking up a book and turning to the page and show me a very tiny picture there. I was very impressed. She learned her shapes, colors and alphabets when she was around 3. I didn't need to put much effort to teach her. She has a very strong musical sense. She learns piano pieces very fast. When she hears a song or melody that she likes, she is able to play it by herself.

She is in kindergarten now. Her teacher told me that knowledge-wise, she's ahead of most of the students in the classroom. Although she's still not talking fluently, she's already learned phonics and is able to spell some words using phonics. She also solved problems in a very different way than other students. When teacher expected her students to make a different ABABAB pattern using different colors (without saying colors but just different), my daughter was not able to do it. When I figured out why, she didn't think that different colors make it any difference. She thinks that different patterns is different. Since she always has the concept of other patterns like AABBAABB, or even ABCABC. But she made her teacher believe that she didn't understand the word "different"

Another concern from her school is her daydreaming as well as using a lot of cartoon scripts. My daughter enjoyed pretending to be cartoon characters since she was 2. Though she didn't talk fluently, she was able to memorize all the cartoon scripts clearly. She would pretend the movements, the tones and just enjoyed by herself. Sometime, she would pretend that she's talking to some cartoon characters and put herself into part of the story. It makes other kids difficult to understand her sometime. I was concern at the beginning since I wondered if she lives in her own world (like what her teacher was concern about). But she is very outgoing. When we take her to the park, she would invite other kids to play together by saying something like, "come play the slide with me!" or "let me help you push the swing" etc.

Both my husband and my aunt (from my dad's side) were gifted children. My father didn't go through any assessment in his childhood but he was a very smart kid as well as a late talker. Both my husband and I have earned graduate degrees and we performed well in school when we were kids. I'm still not sure if my daughter is gifted. Her teacher believes that she's having some language as well as social disorder since she doesn't answer questions correctly and didn't take part in role playing with other kids. When she goes into her classroom, it usually takes a long time for her to settle down. She would just stand there and look around without being able to find an activity to do. When she is not able to find something that interests her, she would pretend to be a cartoon character again and enjoy in her own imagination. I'm not sure if it's a concern.

Your advice and information would be much appreciated!

A: As a rough guide, at about 3 plus, your daughter should have a vocabulary of around 500 words leading towards 1,200 words or more by age 4. By 5 years of age, she should be able to, identify some letters of the alphabet, use six words in a sentence, use “and,” “but,” and “then” to make longer sentence. Having said that, preschoolers range widely in the number of words that they use and this guide is just an average development of most kids within the mentioned age range. On the other hand, gifted children tend to talk earlier, have larger vocabularies, and use longer sentences in comparison to their non-gifted peers.

In your case, having two languages may be an interfering factor as the child has to master two languages and not all children have the same lingual ability regardless of whether they may be gifted or not. However, over time this may not even be a concern any longer. As for giftedness, there are benchmarks for determining whether a child is gifted. Most schools with gifted programs define this as an IQ of 120 or more on a standardized test. Testing would be appropriate to determine the exact and specific abilities that your child has but not all abilities. Advanced verbal development is one of the most common traits of early giftedness but at the same time a child who demonstrates other advancements but late speech development may also be in the gifted range. It is also found that the phenomenon of late talking in children who turn out to be normal to gifted in ability is not uncommon. However, a much delayed speech may cause delays in the acquisition of a number of other skills. From your description, there is a high possibility that your daughter may be gifted and her delays in speech may just be developmental. Although, early talkers have more access to learning faster and hence may develop faster that the average child, it is also possible for the speech of highly gifted children to be delayed.

There are two groups that late talkers can fall into: the first that are within normal limits for speech development (but too late to make parents happy especially in comparison with others) and next, the ones who are truly late in speech development. As for your daughter, if she is already talking, all you may want to do is to improve her verbal ability. I suggest you see a speech therapist who may be able to pinpoint the problem and recommend alternatives. A good book that you may want to read is Late Talking Children, by Thomas Sowell, a distinguished economist at Stanford University who has a son who talked very late and yet is quite gifted.

As for her social development, I don’t really see a cause for much concern. If she is able to invite other to play in the park, she is socially normal. Talking to cartoon characters or pretending to be one is something most children go through. This is perfectly normal and children should be encouraged to role play which will add richness to their imagination. Gifted children may be able to use this ability even better by, perhaps drawing or even writing a book. Some gifted children find pretend ply far more fulfilling than playing with peers who may not understand them. Your daughter is probably more attuned to her surrounding in school and perhaps may time more time to socialize with her class mates – this is normal. She is bright enough to enjoy learning by doing something that interests her such as pretend play. That is her unique way of adapting to her surroundings. Answering questions incorrectly is not an indication of intelligence – and as you mentioned, her knowledge is far more advanced than her peers
Try taking time to talk to her and gauge what her needs may be. Make her feel comfortable in her environment and show that it is okay to do things that interest her. Slowly, join in the character she plays and encourage her to socialize a little more. The teachers can help by giving her a role that she enjoys. She will ultimately join in with the rest.

As you also mentioned that giftedness in family, it is not surprising that she may be gifted. So for now, just concentrate on her learning skills and help her enjoy her learning journey.


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