When Dr. Thomas Sowell announced his retirement yesterday, it hit conservatives hard. It’s tough to lose the voice of a powerful philosopher and researcher.
He’s best known (with extremely good reason) for his work in economics, politics, and sociology. He’s not as well-known for his contributions to research in child development, particularly in child language development, but his work in that field has had a profound influence on thousands of families, including mine.
As a young child, Sowell’s son, John, showed advanced abilities in some areas – such as figuring out how to defeat child locks before he was even a year old – yet wasn’t speaking by the time he was two, and only spoke a few words by the time of his third birthday. He was an otherwise happy, normal boy, and Sowell and his wife were baffled and concerned. They took him to doctors and other professionals to try to figure out what was going on, but no one had an answer. Finally, Sowell mentioned his son to a professor from the University of Chicago, who suggested:
Mr. Sowell, 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.
Sowell followed the advice, and slowly John’s vocabulary grew. As a teenager John was a “whiz at math and chess” and then in computers – eventually working as a computer programmer at Stanford University while still in high school. He also had a love of music. Eventually, John graduated from college with a degree in statistics.
If John were a preschool-aged child today, the Sowells probably would have been pushed to have John diagnosed with autism and to have him placed in special classes that would have been inappropriate for him and would have, in fact, held him back academically.
Because of his experience with John, Sowell sought out parents of children with similar characteristics to see if there were other commonalities between the families and children. Based on that research, Sowell published Late-Talking Children in 1997. He then teamed up with Dr. Stephen Camarata at Vanderbilt University, who had performed studies on late-talking children and their families, and the book The Einstein Syndrome was published in 2001.
The term “Einstein Syndrome” is used to describe “bright children who talk late” and who don’t have other intellectual disabilities or autism. Many of these children are boys who come from highly educated families, have close relatives who are engineers, mathematicians, or musicians, have lagged in social development, have exceptional puzzle-solving or mechanical abilities, and who are strong-willed and non-compliant.
As I referenced in my story about Rosie O’Donnell’s tweet implying that Barron Trump is autistic, my youngest son was evaluated for autism because he wasn’t talking by the time he was three and had some lags in social development. We also tested his hearing and other physical development, which were normal. In my research, I came across The Einstein Syndrome and felt like they were describing my child. We made an appointment with Dr. Camarata and traveled to Vanderbilt to have our son assessed there.
After a thorough (2+ hours) assessment, Dr. Camarata assured me that my son did not have autism and gave me a set of recommendations for helping build his language skills – which were pretty close to what Sowell did with his son. Dr. Camarata told me that had I enrolled my son in an early intervention program focused on children with autism, this would have not only not helped him, but would probably have harmed his progress.
As with many late-talking children, my son loves music and is innately talented in that area. When he started taking piano at age 6, he completed two years of piano study in one year. (Even though he could barely speak more than one sentence.) I taped his first recital and sent a progress note to the Camaratas, and they replied asking if they could send the video along to Dr. Sowell because they knew he would love hearing the success story.
I might have jumped out of my computer chair and screamed loudly when I read that.
My son is now getting ready to head to high school. Earlier in his academic career, he had to have accommodations in the classroom because of his delayed language ability, but recent testing showed almost off-the-charts abilities in both math and language. He is very precise in his speech and writing. Unlike his peers, he texts in complete sentences and without acronyms.
Oh, and he’s a chess champion.
While I am a huuuge fan of Dr. Sowell’s economic and political work, I am immensely grateful for his work with late-talking children and their families. It has made all the difference for my son.