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If my 2-year-old doesn’t know his colors, could he be color-blind?
Q: My 2½-year-old son doesn’t seem to know colours. He can identify all different types of construction vehicles but can’t pick out the blue one from the red one. My pediatrician said that he doesn’t even ask how well a child knows his colours until he’s about 4, but all of the other kids in playgroup have them down. My child seems to be aware that he can’t pick them out and withdraws. Even though we have no history of colour-blindness in our family, I’m worried that he might be colour-blind.
A: There’s not much written about this, Sarah, but your pediatrician is absolutely right. Children seem able to learn the names of colours later than they learn the names of shapes. Notice I underlined the word “names,” as those labels are totally arbitrary and are different in different languages. Knowing the names for the various colours is totally different from distinguishing between different colours. The inability to recognize the difference between various colours is what characterizes colour-blindness. Now obviously, if you can’t distinguish between two colours, you can’t learn the names we have given them (or else you do it by learning to pick up subtle clues that would be well beyond a 2-year-old). You mention his inability to “pick out the blue one from the red one.” Confusion between red and blue occurs only in total colour-blindness, which is rare. The most common type of colour-blindness is red-green.

As soon as your son knows what “same” and “different” mean, you can conduct your own test to determine whether he is colour-blind. Hold up two little trucks, one red and one green, and ask, “Are these the same colour?” But don’t stop there, as children tend to answer in the affirmative. Ask, “Are these different colours?” Do that with a variety of objects (blocks, T-shirts, socks, etc.), but don’t make a nuisance of it. If he says they are different, then label one and say, “This is the red one. You want to play with the red one? I’ll play with the green one.” Keep up the labeling without making too big an issue of it, and he’ll soon know the names of the colours. Finally, don’t worry that the other children in his playgroup seem to know them. I’ll wager that your son knows some things they don’t know.