A few months ago, I was running after my kiddos to get them to eat when I got a call from a school friend. We had studied together till high school, but had lost touch over the years. Well, we were reunited by Facebook (social media has a few advantages, you see!).
So coming to the point, I picked up the call with an excited, “Hi, how are you.”
We had shared phone numbers a day ago, so no suspense here. However, there was no excitement at the other end. I heard a trembling voice saying “Anu, I think my son has autism. Can you help me?” This came as a shocker. Handing over my babysitting job to hubby dear, I tried to recollect her son’s pics, I remembered a bubbly toddler looking straight into the camera and smiling.
First of all, I told her to calm down and tell me how this diagnosis came into the picture. She told me that her son is 3-year-old and doesn’t speak much except for an occasional “mum”. I knew that she lived in Chennai with her husband and kiddo. And, the couple is North Indian.
I tried to dig a bit more into their lifestyle. She told me that they spoke Hindi at home while in school the teachers conversed in English. He also went to daycare after school where most of the kids spoke Tamil. The baby used to cuddle up to his parents and made eye contact while speaking.
This didn’t look like autism as autistic children are not that social. This looked more like speech delay due to exposure to multiple languages. However, sitting thousands of miles away, I was not the best person to counsel her. I told her to consult a pediatrician preferably someone with a specialisation in child development or child psychiatry ( these specialists are usually available in good multispeciality hospitals).
A month later, she called me again. This time a happy voice telling me that autism was ruled out by the doctor and her son is happily undergoing speech therapy. I too heaved a sigh of relief and we bonded over our childhood memories.
Dear friends, long story cut short, these days many toddlers are exposed to multiple languages at different places- parents speak their native language at home, daycare people speak the local language and then schools are hell-bent on teaching English speaking from day 1. For some kids, it’s a boon as exposure to the multilinguistic environment is known to improve intelligence. However, not all kids adapt similarly to this scenario. Some of them get confused and refuse to speak at all. Nowadays because of a lot of information available on social media, we start getting worried about multiple diagnoses instead of seeking a solution. And because of so much hype around it, diagnosis of autism is the first to come to mind.
Sometimes, it is altogether a different issue. Some babies have a problem with hearing which leads to speech delay. In other cases, there is a tongue tie (tandua) and the child lags in uttering words like “da”, “la”. A few of them might have autism too. This is a complex diagnosis and has many symptoms in addition to speech problems. These toddlers are not very social – they remain withdrawn to themselves, do not cuddle much and avoid eye contact.
There are extensive criteria to assess them and a child specialist particularly a child development specialist is the most appropriate person to examine them. Further, there is a spectrum of this issue. Some children have mild variety with only speech delay and a bit of social awkwardness. On the other end are the severe forms with complete failure to interact with the outside world. Even if there is autism, most of these children can do very well with early help. Recently, I came across a Facebook Page “The Gladiolus”, whereby autism is beautifully explained with the help of animation.
If we talk about normal speech development, usually a baby starts saying “goo goo gaga” (we call it cooing) by 3-4 months and “baba”, “dada” (bisyllables) by 6-7months. By their first birthday, they start saying their first word and have a good vocabulary by the age of two years. Most of them have an understandable speech in three years. There is a range of age groups for achieving a particular speech milestone – your sister-in-law’s daughter might start cooing at 2 and a half months and your own baby might keep mum till 3 months.
Both are normal – don’t compare them, not two siblings are the same. As long as they are in the normal range, they are good to go. If you visit your pediatrician regularly for vaccination, he will be happy to sort these queries and formally assess the baby’s development at each visit. And, if at all there is an issue it will be picked up well in time. Another advantage of routine vaccination visits to a child specialist!!
So, if at all, your baby seems to be slow in uttering his first words beyond two years of age, consult your pediatrician. He or she is the best person to assess your little one and give an opinion. He might refer you to a speech therapist or child development expert depending on the case.
Speech delay in any form responds best when speech therapy is started early. Hence, it is a must to diagnose these issues at an early stage. Act in time and enjoy their sweet rattlings. Happy parenting!!
NB: The above narrative is inspired by two real-life incidents.