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Jewish World Review Dec. 7,1999 /28 Kislev, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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The party line on late talkers -- Newspapers have traditionally kept advertising separate from news. But that has become harder to do, now that so many organized interest groups advertise by creating news -- whether by raucous demonstrations or by making pronouncements based on their "expertise."

A recent New York Times "news" story turns out to be a big advertisement for those selling speech therapy for small children. It begins by referring to a "legend" that "Einstein did not say much as a toddler" and mentions his "supposed failure to master language early."

In an era when anything that anyone doesn't want to believe can be dismissed as a myth or a legend, it may be too much to expect the New York Times to check the facts. Any number of biographies of Einstein refer to his lateness in beginning to speak, as Einstein himself did.

It was not a legend that Einstein was late in talking. Nor was it a legend that his fellow nuclear physicists Edward Teller and Richard Feynman were also late talkers. Nor is it a legend that Nobel Prizewinning economist Gary Becker was late to begin speaking, along with numerous other highly intelligent people, famous and unknown.

Before becoming a mouthpiece for a special interest group like the American Speech Language Hearing Association, the Times could have checked with Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University, who is doing a major study of exceptionally bright children who talk late. Professor Camarata himself was three and a half years old before he said anything.

Like so much propaganda, the Times story has to depict what it says as something new. It refers to "new advice based in part on studies showing that children with speech impairment are more likely to have reading and social problems later." That grim fact has been known for years and publicized all across America and overseas.

Children talk late for so many different reasons that nobody should assume anything without having the individual child thoroughly checked out by highly qualified professionals. Many speech therapists, especially those encountered in the public schools, do not fit that description.

Many of these speech therapists have inflicted much needless anguish on trusting parents by hasty diagnoses of their children as retarded or autistic, and have directed these children into "early intervention" programs that have done them more harm than good. This is the other side of the story that you are not likely to get from the American Speech Language Hearing Association.

Some children who talk late are indeed retarded or autistic or have hearing problems. That is why they need to be examined by qualified medical people.

But that is very different from some speech pathologists and their organizations pooh-poohing pediatricians who tell parents that there is nothing wrong with their late-talking child and that speech therapy is not called for.

No one's diagnosis is infallible. But to suggest that parents should give more credence to those who make a living from speech therapy than to those with higher qualifications who don't is a little much. If the pediatrician's word is not enough, then perhaps some other medical specialist can be consulted -- preferably one with no connection with any of the many "early intervention" programs springing up across the country and needing a continuing supply of children to justify their existence.

Where early intervention is genuinely called for, it should of course be done as soon as possible. But whether it is called for is precisely the big question for any given child.

Panicking parents with detailed lockstep norms as to when a child should gurgle, babble or begin to speak words is not the answer. But the New York Times story is accompanied by such a detailed schedule, broken down by the month and year in which these things are all supposed to happen.

Averages are not rules. Although babies are supposed to have "one or two words" when they are between 7 months and a year old, according to the table in the New York Times, Edward Teller said nothing that anyone could understand until he was four years old.

Delayed speech development is something to investigate. It is not a blank check for the panacea of "early intervention." And the investigation should be conducted by someone with no vested interest to bias the diagnosis, not by semi-professionals with no qualifications to diagnose anything.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate