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Jewish World Review / May 20, 1998 / 24 Iyar, 5758

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell Smart but silent

WHILE A FATHER AND A MOTHER may have different reactions to problems that arise with their child, seldom is that difference as extreme as in the reactions of the parents of a young child who was late in talking. The little boy was being evaluated by a public school and the evaluator's conclusion was that he was mentally retarded.

The mother began to cry and the father began to laugh.

The father was Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University, a speech pathologist specializing in childhood language disorders. He realized that the evaluator was incompetent. Professor Camarata is the author of scholarly articles and a textbook on the subject, and runs his own clinic at the Vanderbilt medical school. Moreover, he himself talked late.

Tragically, misdiagnoses and counterproductive treatment of children who talk late are not uncommon. One professor of neurosciences says that at least three-quarters of the medical histories she reads contain at least one report that is "completely off the mark."

Historic examples of late-talking children who were wrongly believed to be mentally retarded include nuclear physicists Albert Einstein and Edward Teller. Another nuclear physicist who had talked late worked with them to create the first atomic bomb -- Professor Richard Feynman of Cal Tech, a Nobel Prize winner.

Children talk late for such a wide variety of reasons that their intellectual levels range from severely mentally retarded all the way up to people of the highest genius. Some have physical problems that impair their hearing or make it difficult for them to form words. But there are others who go through all sorts of medical and mental tests with flying colors and still say nothing.

Five years ago, when my son graduated from college, I mentioned in this column that he was almost four years old before he began to talk. Letters poured in from around the country from parents of similar children. Like my son, these children not only talked late but also showed unusual analytical ability in mathematics, chess, computers and the like, as well as having remarkable memories.

Although I did not realize it at the time, this column set in motion a chain of events that lead eventually to the publication of my book Late-Talking Children.In turn that led to my learning about Professor Camarata and to his beginning his own study of bright children who talk late.

His group of parents, like those that I studied, are able to share their experiences with one another, as well as contributing information to advance research on speech delays among bright children. Moreover, Professor Camarata can do something that I as a layman could not do -- diagnose the children and advise their parents.

While his research is still in progress, my research on 46 late-talking children turned up striking patterns among both those children and their families. First of all, the great majority of these children are boys. The average age at which they talked was four. Almost all showed unusual ability at analytical tasks like doing puzzles when they were toddlers, as well as exhibiting remarkable memories.

Three-quarters of these children have at least one engineer, mathematician or scientist among their close relatives -- and often more than one. Most also have more than one close relative who plays a musical instrument. More than one-fourth have a professional musician among their close relatives. The children themselves are often mathematically or musically inclined, or both.

All this suggests heredity, though too many people have been all too willing to blame the parents -- especially the mother -- for a child's speech delay. But usually the other children raised by the same parents talk at the normal time or earlier.

There is much that remains to understood about children like this. Moreover, other highly intelligent children, most of whom have no speech delays, have other anomalies -- allergies, myopia, left-handedness -- more often than do members of the general population.

While not even the experts have yet fully understood such things, what we should all understand are the dangers of shooting from the hip when diagnosing young children. Many of the personal characteristics found among high-IQ children would be enough to get them labelled "autistic" by evaluators who blindly follow a checklist of symptoms.

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4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
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3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
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3/6/98: Vindication
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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.