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Why Are We Diagnosing Little Boys With A "Problem," Just Because They Develop Differently Than Girls?

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner··  9 min read
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We all know that everyone is different. Children especially develop at their own rates. Unfortunately, due to over-examination of kids and obsessive parenting pressures to study and record milestones, boys and girls are expected to follow the same timeline, and that’s just not possible.

I have two daughters and two sons. The boys are younger, and when my first boy was 6 months old he did say a few words, but he didn’t like talking or repeating himself. Over time, his speech didn’t develop as fast as everyone expected. Every so often he would say a single word or repeat a long sentence, then fall back into silence. 

Of course, autism came up in many conversations, but he was very focused. He looked us in the eye, knew his colors, numbers, and some letters by the time he was 18 months old. He listened and followed directions, loved playing games, being with other children, doing group activities, and had a special interest in birds which led him to imitate their calls.

When I posted about this on social media, or discussed it with other parents at events and gatherings, other moms would tell me similar stories of their boys. Some had sought out speech therapists, but others just tried at-home practices that encouraged talking.

Because this issue seemed more common than I knew, I continued these conversations and also did some research – which revealed plenty of information that relieved me and my husband. Our boy was… a boy. A very active, masculine child who was more physical than girls because of his biology. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an uncommon phenomenon, and there is often nothing wrong with boys who talk “late.”

Masculine Boys Don’t Develop Language Skills As Quickly As Girls 

To make sure I wasn’t in denial, I researched autism. My son didn’t display any of the signs other than delayed language skills. Then I looked further and found a study from 2012 that linked higher levels of testosterone with late talking skills. About 12% of boys were highly affected by this.

It made sense to me. Just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean they’re not thinking or listening. Men are more visual in general, and so their verbal skills tend to lag in comparison to women. This begins at birth and continues through early childhood development. It’s not a social construct, it’s how they’re made. I found plenty of articles addressing this research, but they presented the results as a problem to be solved, instead of a natural biological difference that required parents, teachers, and others to promote ways that allow children to grow at their own rate. 

Just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean they’re not thinking or listening.

This baffled me. I’ve always believed that children should be nurtured as individuals, not as walking statistics or accessories meant to be compared to each other. When I asked within my family, I learned that some hereditary links matter. There isn’t much research studying the connection to later developed speech and genetics, but my husband’s family has had a handful of late-talkers who eventually caught up in their verbal skills. They were also the more successful, intelligent men.  

Knowing this, I sought out further encouragement from books and success stories. What I found revealed a close connection between intelligence and slowed speech, and even the hereditary links behind it.  

Intelligence and Verbal Skills

Most boys who talk later than girls catch up to them. It takes time – and sadly, as I’m learning through experience and what I read – late talkers are more likely to potty-train late as well. They can go on the potty, but not as consistently as other children because they know they have better things to do with their time. It may sound silly, but it’s a side-effect of mixing immaturity with intelligence. Just because a child has a high IQ doesn’t mean they’re mature enough to understand their thoughts.

Thankfully, parents have books like Thomas Sowell’s Late Talking Children and The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, as well as Late Talking Children: A Symptom or a Stage by Stephen M. Camarata to serve as references. These resources were suggested to me by word of mouth and have been invaluable comforts and guides.  

In Late Talking Children, Thomas Sowell opens up about his own son’s late talking. He knew his boy was intelligent, but there wasn’t much medical or psychological material on the subject, so he conducted his own research with a group of families across the country who had children displaying delayed speech issues. Nearly every child in question was a boy, and similarly, most were incredibly bright. The book holds a collection of letters from the parents, information from the study, and the notable fact that almost 90% of these children were all closely related to an engineer of some kind. The children who did not have a father, grandfather, or uncle of some sort working as an engineer had a relative who worked in some other analytical field which required a great understanding of mathematics. 

90% of late talkers were all closely related to an engineer of some kind.

This gave my husband and me something to think about, being that most of the men in his family are mechanics. They can build and rebuild engines with ease. It makes me proud when my son shushes everyone around him as he builds with blocks, magnetic tiles, and other toys. 

The Einstein Syndrome is a book I approached with care because I never want to be one of those parents who thinks everything my child does makes them a genius, but I do want to understand and nurture my kids to the best of my ability. It was so encouraging to learn that Einstein didn’t talk until he was 4 years old, and that late talking isn’t just a symptom of autism; it could, instead, be a symptom of a high IQ. It’s important to know that one of the most notable, brilliant scientists in history was a late talker, and he’s not alone in this. Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, and Srinivasa Ramanujan are just a few others with incredible successes in the fields of science and mathematics who spoke later than most kids.

Going on to Mr. Caramata’s book, it points out that “Although all autistic children are late talkers, not all late-talking children are autistic.” His work offers sound information that will prevent parents from jumping to conclusions or allowing the public education system to misdiagnose their child with autism or speech therapy needs. 

Misdiagnosis of Autism and Speech Therapy Needs

Autism awareness is everywhere. We all know someone who has a kid with some form of it, but I’m compelled to ask how many of those cases are misdiagnosed due to incorrect assessments, public school convenience, and/or funding needs? 

The women that I spoke with directly varied in age, race, income level, and so on. Some were directed to speech therapists and took that route, but one mother straight-up admitted that her son probably didn’t need it, she just agreed as a precaution. The children of parents who didn’t put their kids in speech therapy have done just as well.

What we found is that a large portion of these kids were boys with older siblings who talked over them all the time. My daughters are pretty chatty, so we implemented a 1-hour quiet time rule where my daughters were not allowed to talk and my husband and I conversed with our boy. We did break out flashcards and read to him at bedtime, but speech therapy wasn’t a necessity. 

A little after his second birthday, he began to talk more, and by his third birthday, his vocabulary had exploded. It made me wonder about the children in similar situations who are considered autistic. 

Many of the accounts published in Thomas Sowell’s Late Talking Children, spoke of how different doctors and psychologists would reach different conclusions. One would say the child is fine, and another would diagnose him with a form of autism called Pervasive Development Disorder, or PDD. In addition to these mixed reviews, teachers and schools would often disagree with doctors and psychologists who gave a clean bill of health and mental function. They would demand that something must be wrong with the child in question. 

Teachers and schools would often disagree with doctors and psychologists who gave a clean bill of mental function.

Camarata’s book addresses this as well. Plenty of parents have experienced pressure from public school personnel to get the diagnosis they want, instead of the one that actually fits the child. Some teachers reported their frustration at behavioral issues and inability to control the child in question as their main concerns. 

It’s somewhat understandable. When trying to get through to a group of 20-30 kids and one is being disruptive or won’t join in group activities, that causes other children to act out or resist. It’s a hard job, for sure, but that should never give a teacher the right to assume they know better than a doctor or a psychologist or push for a diagnosis that is very likely incorrect. Add in the fact that most early childhood education teachers and pediatricians are women, and these boys face an even greater misunderstanding from the women assessing them. 

Unfortunately, public schools receive additional funding for “special needs” students and so teachers and administrators are encouraged to seek out autistic children, rather than to best serve the individual’s interests because it’s more profitable and fills certain quotas. It does parents and children a disservice and should be stopped. It contributes to the increasing numbers of families fleeing the public education system for private schools or homeschooling options

Closing Thoughts

Children deserve the freedom to grow and explore without doctors, teachers, and psychologists poking and prodding them and studying them as if they’re lab rats. No two children are alike. Yes, there are averages and statistics that lay a base understanding of their health and wellbeing, but behind each collective study are individual children with varying skills and abilities. 

My eldest son talked late. My daughters talked early. My youngest son likes to shriek a lot because he’s a year old and there are four kids in one house. It’s pandemonium. 

The point is, boys are not girls and their verbal skills will likely vary. It’s not a crisis situation, and quite often, it’s not even autism. Autism is a serious condition that should be respected and treated as needed, but parents need to stop expecting boys to talk like girls to avoid misdiagnosis.  

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