I’ve tried to write this three times already. I have written thousands of words about my son’s speech delay, and I’ve abandoned them all. None of them feel right yet. Last night, I wrote, rewrote and tried a third time before slamming my computer shut and deciding to sleep on it.
This morning, I woke up with a clear head, and I realized why I was running into such a problem. I was approaching this all wrong. My love for my son was coming out as ferocity, a mother bear threatening to pummel anyone who dares not see her son for all he is. I was trying to beg you, force you — the reader — to see him, even though he won’t always speak to you.
Instead of building a wall of words around my child to spare him from pain, I’ve decided the best way to explain what it’s like to live with a child with a speech delay is to be vulnerable, honest and to give you credit. I’m going to trust you with some of the tough parts, and then let you in on the beautiful stuff and hope that by the end, you will understand him just a little bit better.
We first noticed that Walker wasn’t speaking like other kids around 18 months. He was two and a half before the gap was wide enough to convince our pediatrician to recommend speech therapy. He was just under three years old when they added an autism diagnosis to his receptive and expressive speech delays.
We don’t use functioning labels or autism levels, but you should know that at this point in his life, Walker doesn’t require much support. He has some idiosyncrasies that we roll with, but speech differences are the main area where growth is needed for him to be content.
When he was little, his speech delay was a challenge because we didn’t know what he wanted. Several times we just sat and cried together. He was frustrated that he wasn’t getting his way, and I felt so guilty that I couldn’t meet his needs. After a few failed attempts at communicating, my boy went mostly silent. It took months in speech therapy to open him back up, but every success spurred him on further and further. He’s made slow, steady progress ever since.
Now that he’s older, he can make himself clear in all the necessary ways. Gone are the days of not being able to ask for a specific snack, or peeing his pants because I didn’t understand he was asking for a bathroom. We are way beyond that now. He can communicate.
Most of the time, Walker is just happy being Walker. He giggles more than any child I’ve ever met. And he sings! When Walker is singing a song, he doesn’t miss a word. His memory for lyrics is incredible (I swear, I only let him listen to Lizzo ONE TIME…ugh.)
Walker has a speech delay, but he is not miserable. We work to make sure we understand him.
But he’s starting to realize that language is meant to do so much more than assure your basic needs are met. Language is for stories, games, and expressions of emotion. Language is for connection. Speaking is not just a utility. It’s the way most of us connect.
Most people just learn their first language by immersion. You don’t teach a child how to talk. You just talk to them a lot, and they figure it out. For some reason, that system only took Walker part of the way. He has to learn the rest on purpose.
Making Walker appear neurotypical is never our goal. As long as he happy, I am content to let him be different his entire life. He’s empathetic and kind. Helpful. Happy.
To me, he is perfect. But other kids can tell stories, play games and interact in ways he just hasn’t quite grasped yet. Walker doesn’t have any kind of cognitive impairment, and he is incredibly observant.
He is starting to notice.
Few things have been more heartbreaking to me than watching my child discover that he is different.
I can always tell when he had a discouraging day at school. He won’t say a word all the way home. That’s what happens when he feels out of his depth. He just shuts down. We have some friends who have never heard him say a single word because he gets too overwhelmed. He will only speak if he has complete confidence that he knows how to say what he wants to say.
I want to be crystal clear: I am not disappointed that Walker speaks less than his peers. Not one bit. I adore him, I am giving him his best shot at learning, and I am happy to let him progress at whatever pace works for him. He is the captain of this ship.
I am not disappointed in him.
But sometimes I am disappointed for him.
For the things he knows he is missing because kids his age don’t understand why he won’t answer their questions.
For the things he might miss later on if the gap between him and his peers widens.
I’m sad for the times when he just chooses silence because his brain has it all worked out, but he knows he just can’t make it come out of his mouth exactly right yet.
I can’t make my child magically begin to speak like people expect him to do, but I can try to make the world a little kinder to kids who understand more than they can say. Can I give you a tip?
If you meet a child with a speech delay, talk to them directly. Look right at them, ask them questions, tell them all the things you’d tell any other child their age. If they don’t respond, don’t go silent. Reassure them that it’s okay if they don’t want to talk to you, and just keep treating them like you’d treat any other kid. Most of the time, their parent will help them understand and respond, but don’t talk to the parent like the child isn’t present. Don’t ask if they can talk. Speech delay is not always connected to a delay in understanding, and kids who don’t speak a lot still want to be treated like everyone else.
We don’t know when Walker will reach the end of the line with speech development. He might end up one of history’s great orators or live his whole life as a man of few words. Only time will tell.
He will become who he is meant to be, and we will be here to make sure he has every opportunity to succeed as he goes. Walker is learning language at a delayed pace, and that’s okay. Parenting a child with a speech delay comes with some extra challenges, but it also comes with so many extra opportunities for celebration.
Sometimes communication is more than words, and nobody knows that better than a family like ours.