Why won’t my child talk?

What do to if your child has a speech delay

milestones, delay, communication, speech, special education services

The author's son, Simon (pictured above), missed almost all his milestones for language. He didn't laugh or coo. He was just silent. Eventually through pictures and sign language, he began to request food and toys. That was his first step toward showing him that he could reach out to us.

One of the most anticipated milestones for parents is hearing their child say those precious first words. We can't even wait to hear "Mama" and "Dada" or something adorably mispronounced like "tebby bear."

But what happens when this milestone passes by and your child still isn't speaking? It's unexpected, frustrating and heartbreaking. My son has autism and was non-verbal. It's important to know, you are not alone.

Missed milestones

Children develop at their own pace and different strengths emerge at different times. There are, however, some important thresholds for language and communication skills. According to the Mayo Clinic, by 12 months children should start imitating sounds, looking toward the direction of sounds and understand simple sentences like "come here." By the end of 24 months, children should be able to make simple requests such as "more milk," know up to 50 words, and be understood most of the time.

For my son, he missed almost all of his milestones for language. He didn't seem interested in listening to me talk or repeat words. He didn't look around when a dog barked outside, he didn't laugh or coo, he was just silent.

For Christina of Wappingers, she didn't notice any delay with her first child until she went in for a well visit around 18 months. "Another kid about the same age was talking up a storm and speaking very clearly. My daughter said "Mommy" and "Daddy" but that was about it. That was my first clue."

Language is a complex process

It takes a lot to turn a thought into words. A thought must get translated into sounds by coordinating breath, muscles, tongue and mouth. Plus, there needs to be an understanding of what is being said to effectively respond. Eye contact, tone, body language, gestures, and facial expressions also play a major role in communication. Being able to hear the speaker, yourself and filter out surrounding sounds is also a vital part. If there's a breakdown in any small part of this complex process, the result could be delayed speech development.

Ask for help

Your first stop should be your child's pediatrician. Make a list or take a video of your child's struggle to speak. Include any behaviors that seem unusual, such as excessive drooling or chewing, problems with attention and interest or regressions. Your pediatrician can then refer your child for a screening to determine the degree of delay and appropriate special education services. And throughout this process, you will have a team of specialists that will assist you through paperwork, appointments, and goals.

Asking for help could also mean admitting that there's something "wrong" with your child and that can be devastating. It's okay to be sad and even angry. We all just want the best for our children.

Some of the most common reasons for speech-language delay:

• Expressive language issues: difficulty expressing needs and wants
• Receptive language issues: difficulty understanding information
• Apraxia: difficulty and inconsistency in articulation
• Dysarthia: difficulty speaking due to muscle weakness
• Hearing loss: partial or total hearing loss in one or both ears
• Autism: difficulty communicating due to lack of interest and social unawareness or avoidance
• Intellectual limitation: other developmental delays

Dear parents, you did nothing wrong

Jessica, from Middletown, recalls, "Oh, the guilt! I didn't realize my son was delayed. At his 2-year checkup, his pediatrician said, 'I've been noting some red flags. I'm pulling the trigger now and you need to get him evaluated'." Wappingers mother Christina recalls questioning if she had done something wrong or wondering if maybe she just hadn't been home enough to give her child what she needed.

Take the time to go through whatever emotions you need to and come out stronger because you know your child is going to get the support they need.

Christina, whose daughter has apraxia, turned to YouTube in search of more information about her diagnosis. "It was so validating. There was so much information in the beginning, it was overwhelming. Watching videos of other children with apraxia and seeing their progress and even overcoming their disability helped so much."

Communication comes in many forms

Regardless of diagnosis, communication in any form is important. While we all wish to hear our children speak, it's crucial to find other methods that can work for your child.

My son had so many silent thoughts, questions and needs. It was important to find another avenue of communication. With a few other developmental issues going on including autism, we enrolled him in early intervention and speech therapy.

Through pictures and sign language, my son eventually began to request food and toys. It was the very first step in showing him that he could reach out to us. The greatest thing I've ever learned is that just because my child isn't talking, doesn't mean he has nothing to say.

Miss Val, a licensed speech language pathologist M.A., CCC-SLP, says when she first visits with a family enrolled in early intervention, regardless of diagnosis, her focus is how she can help the child use functional language based on their strengths. "Communication isn't just about verbal language, it's also about gestures, comprehension, attention and social engagement. Every child learns differently, and during our sessions I help the parents have fun with their child and focus on the positive."

One of the ways she helps the parents is by learning about the child and their interests. "Toys can be highly motivating, and we can build on that while reinforcing communication."

Speech therapy during early intervention isn't just about helping the child. Specialists, like Miss Val, work closely with parents and caregivers to provide tools and strategies to use between sessions. "It's important to be flexible, there's no one method that works for everyone. I try to make language fun, so it never feels like work. Every child has the ability to communicate in their own way."

If you suspect a speech delay, remember today is always a good day to ask for help.

Rielly is a freelance writer and mama to an adorable toddler with autism. Follow her online @riellygrey.