My son Anders has been in speech therapy since he was 2. Trying to teach a child how to speak is much harder than I ever imagined. I always just took my basic skills for granted, like knowing how to walk or go to the bathroom—props to my mom and dad.
Anders is now in second grade and will be nine in June. He’s bright and studious, but his speech articulation is on a three-year-old level. Picture yourself four-and-a-half feet tall in a 70-pound bod, smart as can be, but when your words come out, nobody can understand them except those closest to you.
This summer, a friend of mine—who had good intentions—hurt my feelings. On a play date, she blurted out: “What are you going to do about Anders?” I was caught off-guard. “What do you mean?” I asked. I thought it could be a number of things … his picky eating, his sometimes impulsive and anti-social behavior. “His speech,” she said. “I can’t understand a single thing he’s saying! You need to exhaust every resource, have him in therapy every day if that’s what it takes!”
Her words stung. My husband and I had tried so many different things. First off, I knew daily therapy wasn’t the answer. Not only is that expensive, but there’s no way Anders—or likely any kid—would be on board with that much therapy. For therapy to work, they must be willing participants. But she was right about one thing: He still couldn’t be understood. Why was it taking so long?
We had already ruled out cognitive issues, but I wanted to determine if there was some other physical reason for his articulation disorder, one that a specialist in the past had missed. In a matter of weeks, we had appointments with the pediatrician, the dentist, the ENT, the audiologist and the allergist. Anders even went to the hospital for a CT Scan to see if his tonsils or adenoids were bearing down on the back of his tongue and impeding speech. I actually wished that were the problem, that one surgery would fix everything. But that wasn’t the case. All those appointments, all those co-pays, and we had no new answers. The only track it seems, is speech therapy, a journey we’ve been on for nearly seven years.
When Anders was 2, I remember entering his class and being amazed by the other kids’ ability to speak and articulate. “Hello Anders’ mom! I am Olivia. I am two, and I just went potty!” At the same age, Anders would say, “I Nah-Nah (Anders) an I wan BabaTruh (and I want firetruck).”
In the state of Alabama at the time, I applied for Early Intervention, a free speech therapy program for kids under three. He qualified, but every time the therapist came to our house for a session, he refused to participate. He was stubborn and combative. So I tried a different therapist, a private one under our insurance. A few times a week I carted Anders and his baby brother, William, to the next county over for the appointment. I remember one session in particular. Anders was sitting in front of the mirror trying yet failing to get out a “k” sound, when William started clucking from his car carrier in the corner, making a perfect sound from the back of his throat.
We moved to Orlando and our county had a free speech program at the public school for kids 3 and up. Sessions were two days a week during the school day, and since I worked 25 miles away, I hired my housekeeper to pick Anders up from daycare and drive him to speech therapy and back. The speech therapist canceled at least one session every week for one reason or another. There was little I could do—she was a veteran teacher and I wasn’t paying for services—so I tried supplementing with a private therapist. Anders didn’t like the new place nor the change to his routine. The therapist, a young professional in her 20s, held up a flash card of a pink pig and asked Anders to name it. He answered sarcastically, “A boo gaffe (blue giraffe).” $80 a session, down the drain.
We moved to Louisiana in time for Anders to start first grade. I called our new health insurance, and the lady at the 1-800 number said in an annoyingly cheerful voice that a speech therapist in our network was located “nearby in Baton Rouge.” I was exasperated. “Nearby in Baton Rouge!? I have to drive 70 minutes through road construction, over the country’s largest swamp, and through gridlock traffic over the Mississippi River! And do you know how long speech therapy sessions are for a child his age? Only 30 minutes!”
We enrolled Anders in a highly rated public school where he could get free speech therapy services. At Woodvale, he has thrived. He loves the routine and structure, and at a public school with such a mix of kids, he doesn’t feel like the odd man out. He’s gained confidence and excels academically, but his speech progress remains slow.
My friend’s comment last summer did encourage me to seek more help for Anders. I check him out of school every week for private speech therapy at a rate of $78 per 40-minute session. Every time I swipe my credit card, I think about the families who cannot afford this. At our school, the speech therapists can only work on articulation, so the private therapist works on strengthening the muscles in his tongue and around his mouth. We are also adding occupational therapy to strengthen his core muscles and his overall posture. If his body feels uncentered and uncoordinated, perhaps it’s harder for him to target the muscles in his mouth, to properly place his teeth and his tongue where they need to be in order to make the right sounds.
Speech has impacted more than Anders’ ability to communicate. While he was born stubborn as a mule with a type-A personality, I believe his extreme desire for control is because he can’t control his speech. He’s a picky eater, and refuses to try new foods. His weak mouth muscles could make him intimidated by certain textures; he’s unsure how foods will feel in his mouth and how his tongue and jaws will maneuver them.
The hardest of all (for me) is that it’s difficult for Anders to make friends. While he’s an introvert and a little socially awkward, when he does want to engage in friendships, his peers can’t understand him. Sometimes my heart breaks for him. When I see the looks other kids give him I want to shout. HE’S NOT STUPID! He has so many funny and interesting things to say. Why can’t you understand him like I can?
But then one day, the greatest gift came to me unexpectedly. It was Halloween and we dropped in on a new friend. The boys ran off to play, and before following them out of the room, their dad turned to me. “You know, I sounded just like Anders and was in speech therapy until 8th grade,” he said. “I turned out all right. You’d never know now, would you?”
His words were crystal clear, a beautiful song of hope.
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