Geoffrey Sampson


Should I worry that my child is late starting to talk?

If a child is very late in beginning to talk, and there is no physical disability, the worry is that he or she might be autistic. An article in the Daily Telegraph (29 Apr 2002) quotes Lorna Wing, consultant psychiatrist for the centre for social and communication disorders of the National Autistic Society, on specific signs which a parent should take as a clear case for requesting referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist with a known interest in autism. These are:

On the other hand, bear in mind that professionals always tend to err on the side of excessive professional intervention. Based on my own biography, I would suggest, if any of the above apply to your child: have it looked into, yes, but don’t start worrying too much.

My mother often told me that I myself never uttered a word till I was three, so that for quite a while she feared that I might be physically dumb. (This was in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when things like child psychologists were thin on the ground in England; just getting enough to eat and keeping warm in winter were triumphs enough.) Evidently, for Dr Wing this would have been a serious cause for concern.

If so, it hasn’t done me much lasting harm. I have had the good fortune of an interesting career, with likeable colleagues, in which I have achieved an international reputation; children with whom I get on well and who have made good starts on their own adult lives; and a satisfying range of community involvements, friendships, etc. Incidentally, my career involves a lot of public speaking, and people seem to feel that I do this wittily and well.

I mention these things not to boast, but to reassure other parents that a late start to talking is not a signal of disaster. Would I have got much more out of life if I had started talking earlier?

For further reassurance: I am not drawing comparisons, but another man who did not speak till after he turned three was Albert Einstein. Would it bother you to be Einstein’s Mum?

All this does not mean that I believe Lorna Wing is mistaken. Before reading the article which quoted her, I had often wondered whether I might be mildly autistic. All my life I have noticed that other people seem effortlessly to master techniques for interacting socially and detecting others’ emotions, which I have to study and find quite difficult to learn. (In fact my psychology matches rather precisely the features to which Dr Wing earlier gave the name “Asperger’s Syndrome” — and Einstein’s psychology has been described as another instance of this.) But, if this is a “disability”, it seems a pretty trivial one — in fact it may have been beneficial, in helping me focus on my work. The truth is, surely, that it is just part of natural human variation.

(In fact the psychology experts nowadays are beginning to recognize that Asperger’s Syndrome is not a “disability” but simply one end of a recognized spectrum of normality – the spectrum of masculine versus feminine psychology. Many men and women have elements characteristic of the other sex in their psyche: a woman may be unusually decisive, a man may be unusually sensitive about others’ feelings. The suggestion is that “Asperger’s Syndrome” is a way of describing people whose psyche happens to be 100% masculine. That makes sense to me. A “disability” sounds like something one would prefer to be without, and I wouldn’t want to be any different from how I am; but when men are recommended to “get in touch with their feminine side”, I have always felt that I haven’t got one. It is perhaps a sign of the nasty times we live in that a woman with a 100% feminine psyche is described approvingly as “a thoroughly womanly woman”, but we men at the other end of the scale get a label pinned on us that makes us sound like mental cases.)

So, if your child is a late talker: mention it to the doctor, to be on the safe side, but relax!

Geoffrey Sampson

last changed 25 Feb 2006