What It Really Feels Like To Have A Child With A Speech Delay
Some kids say the darndest things, but other kids don’t say anything at all.
We waited, and kept waiting, sure the words would come soon. The days turned to weeks, the weeks turned to months, and the children around us began to babble, but ours did not. The children around us began to mimic, but ours did not. The children around us began to point out letters and name objects, but ours did not. We began to worry, but not too much. We thought he would speak when he was ready. Then he began to bang his head, on everything. He began to hit. He began to bite. He began to rage and scream, but there were still no words. Our mild worry transformed into concern. Then, once more, we began to wait while government bureaucracy processed our paperwork and placed us on an 18-month waiting list.
When our son turned 2, he was only speaking a handful of words. He couldn’t transfer them between different situations—he could tell me “up” as he drove his car up a ramp, but couldn’t say “up” to ask me to hold him—and his day-to-day interactions were taking on a scary aggressive edge. People don’t talk much about childhood apraxia of speech or language processing disorders because people don’t know much about them.
We were lucky enough to have heard a speech and language pathologist speak on more than one occasion during his infancy, but at 6 months, I thought, “Oh, that’s unlikely to affect us,” and at 1 year, I thought, “Oh, he’s just a late talker.” But 1 became 2 and we suddenly had a vibrant and intelligent toddler who was increasingly frustrated. Head banging, biting, screaming, crying, pushing, kicking, hitting, broken toys, tears, tears, and more tears. Then 2 became 3 and we were still struggling to understand each other.
If there was one thing that could have made it better, it was that other people would see him and understand. It would have eased my mind if I knew that other people were empathetic instead of judgmental. I spent a lot of time trying to explain myself, explain him. Behind my words, this is what I was always thinking:
I sit in a room and watch as he plays happily with a truck and all the other mothers are at ease, chatting pleasantly and only keeping half an eye on their kids. But not me; I’m tense. Though I engage in conversation, I’m constantly poised to leap, because playing happily devolves into my son throwing a heavy rock at my friend’s little boy, or biting his fingers, or smashing his face with a tractor in less time than it takes to blink. I know it’s going to happen; it’s only a question of when.
And I feel terrible for the little boy who is hurt and confused, I feel terrible for our son, and I just feel terrible in general. I wonder what people think. Do they think he’s just bad? Do they know he has a speech delay, and if they do, do they really understand his struggle? Do they wish we’d stop coming around, stop exposing their happy kids to unpredictable eruptions of violence? When they always see the welts, the garish green bruises, and the lumps on his forehead, are they silently questioning what is happening behind the brick façade of our home?
In the moment, when someone intrudes on his space or grabs a toy he has been playing with, he goes looking for a response: a word, an action, something that will convey what he wants or needs. In that moment, there are no words. Either he can’t find them or he can’t articulate them, and so he turns to what works: hitting, biting, throwing.
Some days, I dread the prospect of playgroup. Some days, I think I’d like to never go again. But it’s good for him and it’s important, so we carry on.
When I pick him up from day care and he’s bubbling over with words, I’m so excited and so happy to hear him talking and know what he’s thinking. When we leave speech therapy and he’s had a good session, I’m on cloud nine. I live on a blissful high for two days until I come face-to-face with a child his own age who is telling stories and talking in complete sentences, and I’m brought crashing back down to Earth.
I never predicted it. I never thought about it. When you look down and see a pink positive on that little pee stick, you start silently preparing yourself for any potential. We all hope for easy. We hope for perfectly typical pregnancies and perfectly typical babies that turn into perfectly typical children. We hope for health and on-track development. We don’t worry about speech delays, because quite frankly there is so much worse that can happen, so many more difficult situations to come to terms with, but this has been the hardest circumstance for us.
Dealing with a speech delay is probably one of the most difficult challenges I have coped with in my life. Watching a little person shoulder so much is heartbreaking. Imagine how lonely it must be to stand among people and be without the ability to talk with them.
Ever so slowly but steadily his speech has improved, but his comprehension has increased exponentially faster. Eventually a time came when he could say more, but was more frustrated then he was the year before. The first time we reviewed his initial assessment we were so happy to see he had met all his goals. What an accomplishment! But, then he had new goals, just as far out of reach as the first seemed to be. He was still miles away from other kids his age—kids who were able to tell you what hurt and why, or share their joy. Now he’s almost 4, and he talks instead of hitting and tells us wonderful stories about his day. The months of head banging and screaming are long gone, but I can’t forget them.
When he hit, or screamed, or bit, when he threw his toys at me, or when he started smashing his head against the floor, I tried to put myself in his shoes. It was hard. No matter how frustrated I was, I knew his frustration was a hundred fold. No matter how hard it was for us, it must have been infinitely more difficult for him. We weren’t able to understand him. He couldn’t tell us what he was thinking about. When he discovered something new and amazing about the world, he couldn’t share it. Sometimes I felt like I was missing all the wonder of raising a small child, because that wonder wasn’t communicated to me.
Our speech pathologist often jokes that some day I will come to her and beg her to make him stop talking instead. It’s a joke intended to reassure, but when she says it I know there will never be a day when I say children should be seen and not heard. There will never be a day when I wish my children would just shut up. I will never again underestimate how important communication is; to talk amongst ourselves, to share stories, is to connect with another person. The most essential human ability is communication, because without it we are alone.
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