He Just Won't Talk!



“He’s really smart and understands everything we say to him, but he just won’t talk!” Our speech-language pathologists (SLPs) frequently hear this from the parents of our youngest clients. The child will respond to his name, look around for things the parent names, and follow directions well, but he just will not ask for his favorite toy or food or use Momma or Dada. This lack of vocabulary leads to frustration for the parents and the child. Mom and Dad get upset because they can’t figure out what their child wants or needs. Guilt sets in, and the parents start to doubt their parenting skills. The child gets upset because he isn’t getting what he wants. He begins to tantrum and act out more. Daily routines become a headache for everyone!

“Why won’t he talk?” is often the first question we get when we see the family for the initial evaluation. The answer is not always immediately clear, though. Our SLPs will start by testing the child’s language skills to see how well he understands what is being said to him (his receptive language), as well as how well he uses language to express himself (his expressive language). Receptive skills are things such as responding to his name, finding an object or picture that is named by looking for it or pointing to it and following a simple direction with and without gestural cues. Expressive skills are exactly what the family is concerned about, such as saying “Momma and Dada,” naming objects and pictures, and combining words into simple phrases and sentences, such as “More juice,” or “Red ball”. Expressive skills involve more than just words, however, especially during the first year or two of your child’s development. Turning to look at someone when their name is called is an expressive skill. Using different tones of voice, such as when making a statement vs asking a question, is an expressive skill. Using gestures to point to things they want is an expressive skill. Even using the same sound or syllable (e.g. “muh”) consistently to get Mom’s attention is an expressive skill! Language is complex, and your child can be using it in subtle ways. As a matter of fact, more than 90% of communication is nonverbal! Tone of voice and body language make up the bulk of what we communicate to others. If you roll your eyes when you say, “I loved that movie,” your body language makes it clear you did not. Our SLPs will look for and help you see all the ways in which your child can communicate, even if they don’t have any words.

“Is it my fault?” might be a question the parents whisper to themselves when they hear the results of testing do show a language delay. The reason for a child’s delayed language is not always clear at first, but one thing is for sure, no one is to blame. My son’s first word was “Doggy”, followed immediately by “Bye-bye!” when he was 9 months old. He started walking the next day, though, and we didn’t hear another word from him until he was almost 18 months old! His attention and energy had turned quickly from talking to walking, which can happen. It wasn’t that “he just won’t talk,” but simply a matter of not being able to or wanting to talk and walk at the same time. A child’s language might also show delays if they have health issues, especially frequent ear infections. It’s not that “he just won’t talk,” but he can’t hear well enough to talk. Language delays are common in children with diagnoses such as Down Syndrome or Autism. It’s not “he just won’t talk,” rather he needs more help to talk or communicate. Rarely, a child can suffer from a motor planning disorder known as childhood apraxia of speech, where their brain has difficulty getting their mouth to move right to speak. In this case, it’s not “he just won’t talk,” but he literally can’t get his mouth to move right.

Our SLPs can help you figure out why your child’s language might be delayed, but more importantly, they can help your child communicate! We are passionate about helping children reach their full potential. Give us a call today if you’ve ever found yourself saying “He just won’t talk!”.


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