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  • Tanya Topper

    Tanya Topper

    Look for these speech and language red flags

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    How to know what's normal in your young child's development and when to seek help.


    For a parent, teacher or caregiver, knowing when to seek help for a child can be challenging and a bit overwhelming. We understand these challenges, as all children develop differently, and the information available online, in the media, from friends, etc. can be inconsistent and confusing to understand.

    As members of the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), we would like to help you better understand what to look for as your children develop and know when to ask for help. ASHA states, “Speech, language, and hearing disorders are treatable, and early detection is a major contributor to speedier recoveries, shortened treatment periods and reduced costs for individuals and society alike.” As a result, a helpful way for us to ensure early detection is through educating those within our community. While the following list is not all encompassing, these red flags are important to look for when it comes to identifying communication disorders. 

    1.  Difficulty following verbal directions: Depending on your child’s age, there are certain expectations when it comes to being able to follow directions. As early as 12 months, infants begin to respond to simple directions such as, “Sit down.” Between 2 and 3 years, children are able to follow 2-step directions, and between 5 and 6 years they can follow 3-step directions.

    2.  Difficulty formulating sentences: When children are 2 years of age, they are expected to produce two word combinations to communicate their wants and needs. At 3 years, they are expected to combine at least 3 words. At 4 years, children sound even more adult-like because they are formulating longer sentences (4 or more words). Many children struggle to convey their thoughts and ideas into sentences that make sense. This may be due to weaknesses in grammar/syntax, vocabulary/semantics or organization.

    3.  Weak vocabulary skills: As a general rule of thumb, children will likely understand more than they are able to say. For example, at 2 years old, children should have approximately 200 words in their expressive vocabulary, but may have between 500-900 words in their receptive vocabulary. As children get older, these numbers continue to grow. By 3 years old, children average about 1,000 words in their expressive vocabulary.

    4.  Difficulty understanding the child’s speech/Easily frustrated when communication breakdowns occur: Speech therapists often refer to intelligibility when it comes to speech production skills. Intelligibility is how well someone understands what you (or a child) are saying. Intelligibility expectations are as follows:

    • 2 year olds: 50% intelligible (i.e. You can understand about half of what he/she says)
    • 3 year olds: 75% intelligible
    • 4-5 year olds: 75-90% intelligible

    5.  Limited or poor eye contact and/or decreased interest in social interactions or showing little interest in communicating: Eye contact is important in terms of communication and socialization, and social language skills are necessary in forming meaningful relationships with others. For some children, making friends comes naturally, while for others, it may be more of a struggle. Some children do not know how to interact with their peers. There are also some children who would prefer to play alone and show no desire in interacting with those around them.

    If you have any questions or concerns with regards to your child’s speech and language development, it’s important to consult with a certified speech-language pathologist. As mentioned before, early detection is critical when it comes to academic success, faster recovery, less time in therapy and lower costs. 

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