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Late-Talking Children

Late-Talking Children

by Thomas Sowell

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The painful and baffling mystery as to why some obviously bright children do not begin talking until long after the ”normal” time is explored in this book through personal experiences and the findings of scientific research. The author's own experiences as the father of such a child led to the formation of a goup of more than fifty sets of parents


The painful and baffling mystery as to why some obviously bright children do not begin talking until long after the ”normal” time is explored in this book through personal experiences and the findings of scientific research. The author's own experiences as the father of such a child led to the formation of a goup of more than fifty sets of parents of similar children. The anguish and frustration of these prents as they try to cope with children who do not talk and institutions that do not understand them is a remarkable and moving human story. Fortunately, some of these children turn out to have not only normal intelligence but even outstanding abilities, especially in highly analytical fields such as mathematics and computers. These fascinating stories of late-talking children and the remarkable families from which they come are followed by explorations of scientific research that throw light on unusual development patterns.

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A Personal Experience

With so much scientific and medical literature already available on late-talking children, why would anyone write another book about them—especially someone who has no pretensions to scientific or medical expertise?

While much has been written about children who talk late, and about the many other serious problems they often have, there is virtually nothing written about the special kind of child who talks late but who otherwise shows at least normal, and often above-normal, intelligence in other ways. I am the father of such a child. When I first wrote about him in a newspaper column, after he graduated from college with a degree in computer science, letters began to come in from around the country from parents and grandparents of similar children.

I After their children passed their second, third, or even fourth birthday without talking, most of these parents took them to be tested for all sorts of things. Most of these tests turned up nothing wrong-and often the experts seemed as baffled and frustrated as everyone else. Some non-verbal intelligence tests showed that some of these children could do things that most other children their age could not do. In at least one case, the child could do things that the person administering the test could not do, but the tester knew that the child's answers were right because the correct answers had been supplied with the test.

There was something else unusual about these children. The first 30 I heard about were all boys. The odds against that happening by random chance are astronomical. At various times in my life, I have personally encountered some late talkers who turned outfine-six altogether, besides my son-and all of these were boys as well. One was my friend and fellow-economist Professor Walter Williams of George Mason University. Not all late talkers have been male, however. Highly intelligent female late talkers include distinguished mathematician Julia Robinson. Nuclear physicists who talked late include Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and Albert Einstein.

There have been many labels applied to these children. In fact, these labels have been a major problem and a major source of anguish to their parents. Some observers-neighbors, relatives, teachers-have regarded these children as simply "retarded," but there are also other and more scientific-sounding labels like "pervasive developmental disor-der" or-the most dreaded of all-"autistic." There are some children to whom such labels legitimately apply, so I did not want to give these parents (or other parents) false hopes. But it also became clear that such labels were sometimes used when there was neither sufficient evidence for them as regards the particular child nor sufficient professional qualifications by the person applying the label, or both.

Many of the parents who wrote me were hoping that I could either give them scientific or medical explanations of what was happening or perhaps some practical advice on how to get their children talking, or how to improve whatever talking they were doing. I could do none of these things, but I tried to find something that might be helpful to these parents in the scientific, medical or psychological literature. After my efforts and the efforts of my research assistant to find something that might be useful to these parents failed, I decided instead simply to tell them that I had come up empty and ask if they would be interested in being put in touch with each other. Most accepted my offer to help them form a group to communicate with one another by mail or phone, and seemed much relieved just to be able to end their sense of utter isolation and be able to talk with someone else who could understand their situation.

Particularly valuable as sources of personal experience were five mothers whose sons had already grown up and were doing fine. After a while, the parents in the group began circulating letters among themselves and sending me copies. These letters contained some remarkable stories. This book wiII share some of those stories. Let me begin, however, with my own story-or rather, the story of my son.

John was born somewhat prematurely but otherwise was a normal baby. At least we thought of him as normal until the years began to pass without his talking. When he wanted something, he would point to it. When he was hungry, he would pat the refrigerator so that we would open it up, and t'hen'he woulcl point to whatever he wanted to eat or drink.

During this period, we lived in an upstairs duplex apartment in a housing complex in Ithaca, New York, where I taught at Cornell University. There were many other young academics like ourselves there, beginning their families. We became particularly self-conscious when other children, born since we moved in when John was six months old, began to talk while John still said nothing.

Somewhere around his third year he began to say an occa-sional isolated word. "Rocky" he liked to cry out when he heard newscaster Frank Blair on the "Today" show say what the weather was like west of the Rockies. And when John saw a body of water-a pond, a lake or . a river-he would cry out "wah-ee." There were a few other words he would say, but they were all used in isolation and not to accomplish any practical purpose nor to communicate some thought or feeling. Moreover, even in the case of water, he used "wah-ee" only for bodies of water, not for water in a glass or water coming out of a faucet. He apparently saw no connection between the water he drank and the water he saw in waterfalls, ponds and other places.

Despite not talking, John gave other signs of understanding. I could tell him to go into his room and get the red pillow and bring it to me-and he would do so immediately.

Meet the Author

Thomas Sowell has taught economics at a number of colleges and universities, including Cornell, University of California Los Angeles, and Amherst. He has published both scholarly and popular articles and books on economics, and is currently a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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