A toddler with severe cognitive delays can often learn to communicate.

Can a Toddler With Severe Cognitive Delays Learn Language?

by Sharon Perkins

Finding out that your child has severe cognitive delays is a terrible blow to most parents. You might wonder if you'll ever hear him say "mommy" or if he'll be able to communicate with you as he grows. Many factors influence whether or not a toddler with severe cognitive delays will ever learn to speak, including the severity of his condition and the cause. Getting plugged-in to all available resources, such as early intervention, speech, occupational and physical therapy, along with addressing the issues causing his delays, will maximize his abilities.

Obstacles to Speech

Because most kids learn to speak with little difficulty, it's easy to forget how complex the process of learning to talk actually is. A little one with cognitive delays might have trouble acquiring language because of poor memory skills, and he needs to hear something or perform a task more frequently than a typical child does before it finally "sticks." Not only that, but he also has a short attention span. Hearing loss can also affect speech in toddlers with severe cognitive delays. As many as 80 to 90 percent of kids with Down syndrome suffer from hearing loss, notes Sue Buckley, psychologist and founder of Down Syndrome Education International, in a 2002 "Down Syndrome News and Update" article.

Augmentative Signing

Kids with severe developmental delays often have issues that make it easier to sign than to form words. This doesn't mean you need to memorize the entire American Sign Language manual; use simple signs while continuing to talk to your toddler. Learning a few common, essential nouns as well as verbs, such as -- eat, drink, sleepy, love, up, more, help or done -- can make life a little easier for both of you. Being able to communicate can reduce behaviors such as temper tantrums or him giving up in frustration when he has failed to get his point across, explains Phil Foreman, director of the Special Education Centre at the University of Newcastle, in a 1998 article published in "Down Syndrome Research and Practice."

Communication Devices

In some cases, kids with severe cognitive delays can learn to communicate by using communicative devices, which range from home-made picture boards that show activities your toddler can point at to sophisticated computer programs that utilize computers or tablets. Kids -- even those with cognitive delays -- are often drawn to electronic devices and can often master these programs after age 2, according to Foreman.

Keep Talking

It's easy to talk less to your toddler when he doesn't talk back to you. But, like infants, a toddler with cognitive delays benefits from hearing you talk to him. Keep his developmental age in mind and use short, simple sentences, like you would for a younger child. Many kids with severe cognitive delays don't learn to speak until they reach school age, according to NYU Child Study Center, so don't give up on your toddler's speech.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.

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