Building Blocks of Childhood: Signposts of Disability - What Parents Can Observe

Children typically produce words at some point between the ages of 12 and 24 months. There are many stages of communication, though. "Parents can be reassured that development is on track if their child hands them a toy, understands her name -- and many other kinds of interaction," says Steven F. Warren, director of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies and professor of human development at the University of Kansas.

Signposts of language delay or disability in infancy are:

  • The baby does not babble much by the age of 10 to 12 months. The sounds she makes do not move beyond pure vowels to more complex "da-da" and "ba-ba" statements.
  • At 12 months, the child does not intentionally communicate. He doesn't indicate the things he wants with sounds or gestures. He doesn't point out things he finds interesting, directing your attention. He doesn't protest with squawks or a push when he dislikes something.
  • The child doesn't engage in social interactions like playing Peek-a-Boo, showing off, or waving "bye-bye."
  • And finally, if the child doesn't appear to understand at least some words (bottle or ball, for example), it may be time to seek an assessment.

Several tests can be given in the early years, says Warren. The first thing to do is rule out hearing loss. An audiologist can administer a hearing test and describe choices for intervention. For children who are not yet talking but have normal hearing, an early childhood educator or clinician can do an initial screening by asking the parents questions from the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory/Infants. If a language disability is suspected, Warren recommends in-depth testing by a speech language pathologist. One of the more complete tests is the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales.

After an evaluation, parents can secure resources to stimulate their child's growth. They can work regularly with a speech language pathologist, and receive other services as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Part C of this federal program is about helping infants and toddlers with disabilities. If symptoms appear at birth, IDEA assures that each state will provide services in the first year of life.

"Certainly by age 2," says Warren, "parents can seek a diagnosis and treatment." Research shows that early intervention relieves parents and gives children a good start.

This is the second in a four-part series, The Building Blocks of Childhood, with Steven Warren and Nancy Brady, scientists at the Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute, and written by Joy Simpson. The series includes:


Part 1: What we know about communication between infants and parents

Part 2: Signposts of Disability: What Parents Can Observe

Part 3: The Value of an Interactive Environment

Part 4: Prelinguistic Milieu Teaching: A Boost for Children Age 2


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National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center. U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. Overview to the Part C Program under IDEA -- available online through the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Wetherby, Amy M., and Prizant, Barry M. (1998). Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales manual. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing Company. Information about the test is available online at: