Thursday, October 14, 2021

Someone's child has a speech delay—do you say something?

An adorable little girl I know who's almost 3 years old has a very limited vocabulary—just a few words, and no sentences. She loves singing the ABC song, though she doesn't clearly articulate letters. Her comprehension is good, and she can communicate with nods and gestures. 

This has weighed on my mind. Should I say something? What could I even say? I'm not that close with the parents. Of course, this kid may already be getting therapy; a pediatrician would be well aware of the issues. But as a parent who 18 years' worth of experience with speech delays, I have ached to speak up.

The stigma surrounding developmental delays has eased up in recent years. Still, some parents are hesitant to get their kid therapy. Sometimes they're in denial. Perhaps they figure their child will grow out of it. It's possible they don't want labels imposed on their child. All of this can make the topic so difficult to broach and talk about.

It shouldn't be that way—delays and disabilities are nothing to be ashamed of. But here we are in 2021, and that's still a thing. If this parent had hesitations, I wanted to gently encourage her to get her child help and connect her with a therapist I trusted for an evaluation. I wanted to share my wisdom. At the heart of it all, I wanted to help her child. 

If you see something, say something?

But who am I to say something?

But if I don't say something, am I doing a child an injustice? 

Years ago, I held an 11-month-old in my arms and my Spidey senses kicked in. The tot had low muscle tone and didn't make eye contact. I mentioned to a mutual friend that these could be signs of autism, even as I doubted myself: What if that baby was just very mellow? My friend hadn't noticed, and I never said anything. Months later, the child was diagnosed with autism and started getting services, and I felt guilty for not having said anything. 

And here I was, again.  

Then one day, as the mom and I were chatting, the little girl walked over to us, said "all" for "ball" and her mom handed one to her.

"When Max was her age, he couldn't say that," I mentioned. 

She nodded.

"Speech therapy really helped him come along!" I said. "Max has had the same therapist since he was a little guy."

She nodded again.


She didn't want to go there, and that was fine.

Speaking from personal experience had been a way to start the conversation. It opened the door, should she choose to enter. Maybe she still will. 


  1. I'm a therapist and I beg you not to intervene! I am a professional in development and I would not say anything unless in a professional context. The mother most certainly knows there is a delay and could very likely be treating it currently, and is under no obligation to share private medical information with you, which she would be pressured to do. If she is in denial to the point of not knowing it, even with pediatricians and others in a professional realm talking to her, then there is nothing your comment would accomplish beyond making her defensive.

  2. Hi Ellen, this is a very thought-provoking post. I am of two minds, if I can be honest with you. On one hand, as a parent, I certainly benefited when my family doctor referred our then 16-month old son to an organization that specializes in supporting individuals with developmental delays based on knowing my son was prenatally-exposed to alcohol. These services changed the trajectory of his and ours for the better. So in one hand, I’m glad someone spoke up.

    On the other hand, I personally get annoyed by “unsolicited advice.” I remember being in a bookstore once and a mother came up to me and said she noticed our son tiptoe walks and she said her daughter does the same and we should consider getting him assessed for autism because it’s what her daughter has. I know and knew at the time the mother was very well intentioned but it still caught me off guard and I was irritated, if I can be Frank.

    For me, ultimately, I think it’s about how the message is framed and I think you handled it in a respectful way.

    I remember years ago I was on a crowded subway ride to work. Two women standing next to me were talking about drinking while pregnant. And they were saying how doctors, especially those in Europe, recommend a glass of wine a day to help ease the stress. I was so horrified and up to this day, I wish I had spoken up but I felt the pressure of the societal contract to respect personal boundaries.

    So it definitely is a hard one for me that I go back and forth on. Ultimately, I think you did the right thing… with the best of intentions.

  3. Ellen — I haven’t been to visit your blog in quite awhile. I’m not sure why. But it’s good to be back!

    I just wanted to say that this is a question I think a lot of disabled people face themselves … whether to reach out, unsolicited, with people we see who seem to have a disability too. Sometimes, when our disabilities are pretty obvious, we will see each other out somewhere, at Starbucks or something, and kind of nod to each other in recognition. But we don’t automatically sit down and share a coffee and a chat about our disabilities, or the latest disability issue. At least I don’t.

    Anyway, it’s a dilemma for everyone!


Thanks for sharing!

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