June 9, 2010
My oldest son is now seven. He has never spoken a completely intelligible word.
There have been approximations, attempts at articulation that his father, mother, speech therapists, and sometimes his little brother have understood. “Mmm” for mama, “heb” for help, “ob” for open have all graced our presence, particularly in the last six months. His apraxia, the disconnect between his brain and the muscles required for speech, is strong with him. But for the first time in his life I am watching him strain for vocalizations, feel his fingers on my mouth and his eyes on my face as he struggles to imitate on demand, but never to initiate on his own. It is both thrilling and heartbreaking to see him try, to comprehend that he actually wants to talk now, but perhaps will never be able to coerce the sounds he makes into the cohesive whole of an entire word. I imagine he is frustrated by this inability to converse. I am not even certain of that.
Justin was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder at the tender age of seventeen months, which was particularly early back in 2004. His father, grandmother, therapists and I quickly immersed him in sign language in order to offer him a way to get his needs met without a tantrum, and to afford him the opportunity to more fully connect with the world. We utilized this approach for the better part of a year, contriving hundreds of trials daily in which we cajoled him into asking for a preferred toy, food item, or book to be read. Sign language was his chosen methodology of communication for well over a year, but despite his obvious intelligence, after fifteen months he had really only mastered half a dozen signs.
When we moved to New Jersey we were fortunate enough to receive the services of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, and the excellent practitioners of my newly formed “team Justin” quickly indicated that sign wasn’t working for my son. They believed we should try PECS, a method of language using pictures that is far more visual in its interpretation, and without the prerequisite of good motor imitation skills integral for success in sign. I initially rejected the suggestion, because studies at the time had indicated that more children who signed progressed into vocal speech than children who employed other methodologies of communication. I resisted heartily, and almost made a terrible mistake because I forgot to utilize one of my strengths- to look at the big picture through the lens of an educator, not a mother.
For years in the classroom my co-workers and I had encouraged different modalities of learning, whether the child came with an IEP or a 504 plan, or just required a diverse way in which to acquire knowledge. It was not unusual for teachers at my school to encourage a student to memorize information for a test in the form of a song, to permit them to walk around the classroom to facilitate knowledge acquisition, or even to allow them to respond orally to a quiz if the written word was too daunting to them. We weren’t heroes. It was just part of our job.
I forgot this big picture approach with Justin for a time, because I was too emotionally invested in what I wanted for him, which was the ability to form the spoken word, to convey thoughts, desires, and initiate conversation. I almost forgot to take into account his strengths, which were technology and visual acuity, and acknowledge his weaknesses, imitation and gross motor coordination, both prerequisites for sign language. I also almost forgot that just because I want him to talk, doesn’t mean he will be able to do so. I can provide every opportunity for him, entrench him in multiple chances daily for understandable utterances, but in the end, whether or not he speaks is up to his ability and his motivation, as are so many other skills I’d like him to attain. I forgot this cardinal rule of teaching, and almost squandered the opportunity for even the most rudimentary communication skills for my son.
Justin soon mastered the PECS program and has since moved on to a more complicated augmentative device, the Springboard, which he uses in conjunction with attempted vocalizations both to request desired items, and to respond in academic situations. He is starting to type simple words on the computer now, employing a simpler version of the “hunt and peck” technique my husband still utilizes to this day. Justin has a typing repertoire of almost twenty words now, with new ones in acquisition daily. It is exciting to watch, and thrilling to witness his pride when the printer spits out his accomplishments so that he has tangible contact with his words.
I temper this success however, as I do his some of his other accomplishments, because I must remind myself that language and communication are two different entities, and the former does not necessarily blossom into actual conversation. It took a long time for me to understand that just because my autistic child was bright and might someday have language, he might not have communication. There are a number of children on the spectrum who are pros at scripted monologues, veritable geniuses at enumerating the myriad characters of Disneyworld, the Island of Sodor, or the Wiggles. They have vocabulary, excellent articulation, perfect diction. They speak. They are not communicating in any utilitarian fashion.
I remind myself of this as I watch him struggle, view his attempts to place his tongue in the correct position for a coveted consonant, or elongate his lips for an elusive vowel. I encourage myself to think “out of the box” about language in general, because this particular child may just not need to connect with people the way that his mother does. His rudimentary successes may lead to more meaningful dialogue one day, or they may not.
What matters most is that he does get his needs met, and no longer feels it necessary to cry, pinch, or stomp his requirements to get them realized. He connects. He is happy. And while I know I will always wish for the trappings of conventional speech, even the mere desire of it from him, perhaps in the end we convey more to one another in our increasingly elongated eye contact than we ever would have with the spoken word.
And I can live with that.