Late-Talking Children


By Thomas Sowell

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The painful and baffling mystery as to why some obviously bright children do not begin talking until long after the “normal” time is explored in this book through personal experiences and the findings of scientific research. The author’s own experiences as the father of such a child led to the formation of a goup of more than fifty sets of parents of similar children. The anguish and frustration of these parents as they try to cope with children who do not talk and institutions that do not understand them is a remarkable and moving human story. Fortunately, some of these children turn out to have not only normal intelligence but even outstanding abilities, especially in highly analytical fields such as mathematics and computers. These fascinating stories of late-talking children and the remarkable families from which they come are followed by explorations of scientific research that throw light on unusual development patterns.


Late-Talking Children

Late-Talking Children


A Member of the Perseus Books Group
New York

To my son, John, who was late in talking but early in thinking


A debt of gratitude is owed, first of all, to the dozens of parents of late-talking children who shared their stories with me and who filled out long questionnaires about their children’s development and family background for this study. Dr. Rita Steele, a psychologist in private practice, generously gave of her time to determine what she could about some of the children in our group. Numerous academic specialists in various fields offered me help in locating individuals, institutions, and literature that might aid in trying to understand why bright children were talking late. So did Heather Richardson Higgins of the Randolph Foundation, who helped me spread a net far and wide for people with expertise in related areas. My assistant, Na Liu, has as usual not only helped by assembling and tabulating material for this book (including catching my errors), but also by taking care of all the other things that might otherwise distract me from it. A very special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Steven Pinker, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neurosciences at M.I.T., who not only searched the literature for me but generously offered information and suggestions which proved to be invaluable. Ms. Christine Lim of M.I.T. was also very helpful in supplying me with an annotated bibliography on speech problems and brain functions.

None of these people shares any responsibility for the shortcomings of this book, especially since I, like many of the children in our group, was headstrong enough to go my own way in the end.

Hoover Institution

• one •
A Personal Experience

WITH SO MUCH SCIENTIFIC AND MEDICAL LITERATURE ALREADY available on late-talking children, why would anyone write another book about them—especially someone who has no pretensions to scientific or medical expertise?

While much has been written about children who talk late, and about the many other serious problems they often have, there is virtually nothing written about the special kind of child who talks late but who otherwise shows at least normal, and often above-normal, intelligence in other ways. I am the father of such a child. When I first wrote about him in a newspaper column, after he graduated from college with a degree in computer science, letters began to come in from around the country from parents and grandparents of similar children.

After their children passed their second, third, or even fourth birthday without talking, most of these parents took them to be tested for all sorts of things. Most of these tests turned up nothing wrong—and often the experts seemed as baffled and frustrated as everyone else. Some non-verbal intelligence tests showed that some of these children could do things that most other children their age could not do. In at least one case, the child could do things that the person administering the test could not do, but the tester knew that the child’s answers were right because the correct answers had been supplied with the test.

There was something else unusual about these children. The first 30 I heard about were all boys. The odds against that happening by random chance are astronomical. At various times in my life, I have personally encountered some late talkers who turned out fine—six altogether, besides my son—and all of these were boys as well. One was my friend and fellow-economist Professor Walter Williams of George Mason University. Not all late talkers have been male, however. Highly intelligent female late talkers include distinguished mathematician Julia Robinson. Nuclear physicists who talked late include Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and Albert Einstein.

There have been many labels applied to these children. In fact, these labels have been a major problem and a major source of anguish to their parents. Some observers—neighbors, relatives, teachers—have regarded these children as simply “retarded,” but there are also other and more scientific-sounding labels like “pervasive developmental disorder” or—the most dreaded of all—“autistic.” There are some children to whom such labels legitimately apply, so I did not want to give these parents (or other parents) false hopes. But it also became clear that such labels were sometimes used when there was neither sufficient evidence for them as regards the particular child nor sufficient professional qualifications by the person applying the label, or both.

Many of the parents who wrote me were hoping that I could either give them scientific or medical explanations of what was happening or perhaps some practical advice on how to get their children talking, or how to improve whatever talking they were doing. I could do none of these things, but I tried to find something that might be helpful to these parents in the scientific, medical or psychological literature. After my efforts and the efforts of my research assistant to find something that might be useful to these parents failed, I decided instead simply to tell them that I had come up empty and ask if they would be interested in being put in touch with each other. Most accepted my offer to help them form a group to communicate with one another by mail or phone, and seemed much relieved just to be able to end their sense of utter isolation and be able to talk with someone else who could understand their situation.

Particularly valuable as sources of personal experience were five mothers whose sons had already grown up and were doing fine. After a while, the parents in the group began circulating letters among themselves and sending me copies. These letters contained some remarkable stories. This book will share some of those stories. Let me begin, however, with my own story—or rather, the story of my son.


John was born somewhat prematurely but otherwise was a normal baby. At least we thought of him as normal until the years began to pass without his talking. When he wanted something, he would point to it. When he was hungry, he would pat the refrigerator so that we would open it up, and then he would point to whatever he wanted to eat or drink.

During this period, we lived in an upstairs duplex apartment in a housing complex in Ithaca, New York, where I taught at Cornell University. There were many other young academics like ourselves there, beginning their families. We became particularly self-conscious when other children, born since we moved in when John was six months old, began to talk while John still said nothing.

Somewhere around his third year he began to say an occasional isolated word. “Rocky” he liked to cry out when he heard newscaster Frank Blair on the “Today” show say what the weather was like west of the Rockies. And when John saw a body of water—a pond, a lake or a river—he would cry out “wah-ee.” There were a few other words he would say, but they were all used in isolation and not to accomplish any practical purpose nor to communicate some thought or feeling. Moreover, even in the case of water, he used “wah-ee” only for bodies of water, not for water in a glass or water coming out of a faucet. He apparently saw no connection between the water he drank and the water he saw in waterfalls, ponds and other places.

Despite not talking, John gave other signs of understanding. I could tell him to go into his room and get the red pillow and bring it to me—and he would do so immediately. He even developed a dangerous ability to open the child locks we had on the grates we put across the kitchen door and across an open stairwell in our upstairs duplex apartment. I had to buy more complicated child locks to keep him from dangerous places. He was not yet walking, but was sitting in his little walker one day when I noticed him looking intently at a new child lock I had bought to put on the grate across the kitchen door. He did not attempt to open it by trial and error, but just stared at it closely for a very long time, without touching it. Then he reached out and opened it on the first try.

We used our most complicated child lock on the grate protecting John from the open stairwell. One day, when we were not looking, John figured out that lock as well—and went tumbling down the long flight of stairs, still in his walker, because he was not yet old enough to walk. He cried out in hurt and fright but, fortunately, he was not injured.

After John began to walk, he began to explore and to analyze things, though we of course had few clues as to what was going on in his mind. One pattern, however, he repeated on a number of occasions. There was a door in the living room that led out to a tiny balcony. On warm days, we would leave the door ajar to let in some fresh air. As the sunlight struck a glass pane in the door, it would reflect off onto the opposite wall of the living room where the pattern of latticework in the door would appear. John became fascinated with this.

He would go over to the door, examine it closely, then run across the room to the wall and examine the reflection. Then he would go back to the door and change the angle very slightly and run back to the reflection again to see if it had moved. Then he would go back and change the angle again and come back to see how the reflection had moved. He did this on so many occasions that one day I decided to photograph it. I still have the slide showing John looking up at the reflection with a smile of fascination. He was so young that he still had a pacifier hanging around his neck. Yet he wasn’t talking and it would be years before he would talk.

One day, when John was about three, a televised speech by President Lyndon Johnson was preceded by a picture of the presidential seal that filled the TV screen. John immediately ran back into his room and returned with one of the Kennedy half-dollars that his grandmother had given him. He then compared the presidential seal on the screen with the presidential seal on the back of his Kennedy half-dollar.

There were other indications of his memory. I liked to take John to a park on the opposite side of Cayuga Lake from where we lived. During the long winter months we did not go there but, when the weather became good in the spring, I decided one day to take him back again. As you drive along the highway on that side of the lake, there is a long stretch where you cannot see the water. But, as we came around a bend—just before the lake came into view—John cried out “wah-ee” He knew we had reached the point where we were about to see the lake.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of his memory was demonstrated very accidentally. In the living room I had a chess set which John was forbidden to play with. One day, when I was having a long conversation on the telephone in the kitchen, he scattered my chess pieces across the living room floor. When I returned and saw what he had done, I angrily told John to put them back. He immediately put all 32 pieces back exactly where they belonged on the chess board. He was no more than three years old at this time—and still not talking.

When these episodes are all put together, they present a much more optimistic picture than when they actually occurred, as isolated incidents separated by long weeks and months of silence. Eventually, we began to ask doctors why he wasn’t talking. At first they said that he would probably talk later, but after more months and then years passed, we began to have him tested for all sorts of things. No one could find anything wrong—and no one had any practical suggestions of what to do. The experts were as baffled as we were.


While John’s mother and I were apprehensive about his not talking, there was no sign that John himself was unhappy. He was master of his own little world. And when we tried to teach him to talk, he showed no real interest.

His mother became more pessimistic than I about John’s future. Eventually, she told me that I was just being stubborn in not facing reality.

Since I taught classes at Cornell on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I could take off all day each Thursday to spend with John and give his mother a day off. He and I usually went to parks or around the campus. One Thursday night, I took him by the office to pick up my mail. As we passed a water fountain, he pointed to it, indicating that he wanted me to pick him up to have a drink.

This seemed to me the time to try to get him to understand that what came out of the fountain was the same thing he saw in lakes and ponds.

“Wah-ee,” I said to him, trying to get him to repeat the word and know what this was.

John said nothing but pointed again to the fountain.

“Wah-ee,” I said.

John only pointed more insistently at the fountain.

“Wah-ee, John,” I said.

He now began to cry in frustration. I immediately picked him up and let him get some water. Then I began to cry.


When John was three years old, his mother decided to take a job. That meant putting John in a nursery school. He didn’t like it and what little progress he had made toward talking turned into retrogression. Eventually his vocabulary shrank back to just two words, “rocky” and “wah-ee.” He was obviously unhappy and uncertain. Once he loved to have me throw him up in the air and catch him, but now he was apprehensive when I did it, so I stopped. Ironically, his mother’s job was unnecessary financially. I had just gotten some consulting work and we had some financial elbow room for the first time. After a few months, however, the project on which my wife was working was finished and John was no longer taken to the nursery school.

John was now three and a half and was still not talking. Nor was there any sign of any way to help him. But help came from a wholly unexpected source. I had to take oral language examinations for my doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago and Professor Earl Hamilton from Chicago was a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, not too far away. I could save the airfare to Chicago by driving down to Binghamton and taking the exam there. After I passed my French exams, Professor Hamilton spent some time chatting with me. He asked how things were going in my life in general. I told him that everything was fine—except for my son, who couldn’t talk.

“Have you taken him to doctors?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “All kinds of doctors, all kinds of tests. They can find nothing wrong.”

“Is he alert, active?” Professor Hamilton asked. “Does he seem bright?”

“Yes. That’s what makes it so puzzling.”

“Have you and your wife been able to give him a lot of attention?”

“Not in the past several months. I have been tied up in my work and my wife took a job for a while, so he hasn’t been getting the attention he needs. Now I have had some time lately, and I have been trying to teach him to talk, but it just doesn’t work.”

“Mr. Sowell,” he said in a kind and gentle way, “Don’t try to teach him to talk—not right now. You just give him lots of love and attention. Take him with you wherever you can. Let him know that you think he is the most wonderful little boy in the whole world. And when he feels confident and secure—he’ll talk.”

I can’t imagine what gave Professor Hamilton this insight, but I was desperate and I followed his advice. For several months, I stopped making any effort whatever to teach John to talk and instead spent far more time with him. He became visibly happier and more secure. Eventually, he indicated that he wanted me to throw him up in the air and catch him again. That was when I thought the time was right to try a little experiment.

I turned on a tape recorder and, as a sort of game, asked John to say “water.”

“Wah-ee!” he cried.

When I played it back for him, he was pleased and excited to hear his own voice.

“Rocks, John,” I said.


I played that back for him too and he was again pleased.

Slowly and in a low-key way, over the next few days and weeks, I began to ask him to say some of the other words he had once used. Each time I played them back for him. It became our little game. Eventually his vocabulary regained its former level—and then continued to grow. All these were single isolated words but, one day when he was watching water going down the drain, I said “down the drain” and he repeated it—his first phrase.

By this time John was just three months away from his fourth birthday and, now that he had a start toward talking, I thought that he needed a speech therapist to help him develop further. We found a young lady named Miss Duff who was a speech therapist at Ithaca College and who was very good with him. He spoke in whispers but she got him to speak up. From then on, his speech improved in scope and understanding.

Now that he could talk, we discovered that John knew many things. As I drove around Ithaca with him, he would cry out with delight whenever the car went bumping over railroad tracks.

“Railroad tracks!” he cried.

One day I noticed that he was crying out like this before we actually saw the railroad tracks, even when it was a new place that he could not have known from memory. When we returned home I drew a picture and asked John what it was:

“Railroad tracks,” he said. He had figured out that this sign could be seen before we reached the tracks.

Although John was talking and the long nightmare of anxiety was now over, his speech was of course not as advanced as the speech of other children his age, who had been talking for years. Nor did he have experience in verbal interaction with others. In other words, he had a lot of ground to make up.

John’s most rapid development came when we drove across the country to Los Angeles, where I was going to teach summer school at U.C.L. A. We took three weeks to get there, stopping along the way. For all that time, John was interacting with his parents all day long as we drove and pointed out things to him. By the time we reached Los Angeles, he could read. He had learned from signs along the highway. His favorite was “No left turn,” which he would repeat wherever he saw it. He had turned a corner in his life.

On our way back from Los Angeles at the end of the summer, we stopped and spent the night at the home of friends in Rochester, New York. When I awoke the next morning, I heard the sound of children’s songs being played on a piano. It was John—who may never have seen a piano before, but who had learned how to play tunes on his toy xylophone, and immediately realized that the notes were in the same order on the piano keys.


After returning from teaching summer school at U.C.L.A., I immediately had to move again, this time to Brandeis University, where I now had a new appointment. Among the people who came to say goodbye to us before we left Ithaca was a neighbor whom I little knew but who had apparently heard of John. What she said was revealing as to what she had heard from other neighbors. She was the mother of a retarded child and brought us a special toy as a going-away present.

“I understand you have a boy like mine,” she said. “So I thought I would bring you this toy that my son likes.”

There was nothing to do but to thank her for her kindness—and to be inwardly thankful that I now knew that she was wrong.


The next milestone in John’s life was school. By the time he was six, we were back in Los Angeles, where I now had a permanent appointment at U.C.L.A. John did not take well to school, nor did the school take well to him. The teachers I talked with left me very unimpressed and they threw a scare into his mother by telling her that their tests showed John to be “physically uncoordinated.” When the tests on which this was based were explained to me, I realized what feeble evidence was being used for such sweeping conclusions.

“Are you aware that this boy can skip rocks across the water with either hand?” I asked. They didn’t know and they didn’t care. They had their own little test and that was all that mattered to them. In later years, John took up bowling and bowled his first 200 game as a teenager. In December 1996, he bowled a perfect 300 game. “Physically uncoordinated” was one of many labels put on children without any sufficient basis.

By the end of the first semester, I was convinced that John had to be put into a private school. I learned of one that seemed right by accident. One of my U.C.L.A. students brought her young daughter with her to my office and, when I noticed how articulate the little girl was, her mother credited the school she attended. Since I had no other information on private schools, I decided to give this one a try.


On Sale
Jul 3, 1998
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Sowell

About the Author

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. For more than half a century, his writings have appeared in both popular and scholarly publications, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his books have been translated into a dozen foreign languages. After a career as an economist in the government, academia and the corporate world, he has since 1980 been a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution, devoting his efforts to research and writing, on subjects ranging from the history and influence of intellectuals to education and social policies in countries around the world. His website is

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