“What Do You Think Of Your Child’s Speech?”…..One Mother’s Thoughts
I have asked my friend, Laurie Felty, the mother of a child with apraxia of speech who is also an SLP, to write a series of articles on parenting a child with language difficulties. Here is the first in her series, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did! Laura
“WHAT DO YOU THINK OF YOUR CHILD’S SPEECH?”
ONE MOTHER’S THOUGHTS by Laurie Felty, M.S., CCC-SLP
A few weeks ago, I took my 3 year old son to the pediatrician’s office for strep throat. During the visit, he was quite social and “chatty” while playing with his toys (which we never leave home without) and with the nurse and the nurse practitioner. I was quite proud of him. At the end of the visit, the nurse practitioner very casually asked, “What do you think of your child’s speech?”
My first thought was, “Doesn’t he sound great!” but before I could reply, she added, “because by his age he really should be talking better than he is.” In the span of a few seconds, my emotions went from one extreme to the other. You see, my son has childhood apraxia of speech and has been in speech therapy since he was 21 months old. At first, I was thrilled to think that someone had noticed how much progress he had made. Then, in the next instant, I was reminded that despite his progress, his speech was still very much delayed.
I’m also a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) and although I was glad that the nurse practitioner had taken the time to notice and comment on a possible speech delay rather than just focusing on the primary reason for his visit, as a mother, my bubble had been burst. These are the kinds of ups and downs that have become common to me in dealing with the day in and day out struggles of a child who has difficulty talking.
In truth, I know that I “think” about my son’s speech far too much. I don’t know if that is because I’m an SLP and a mother or simply because I’m a mother. I do think it’s somewhat ironic that I have a child with apraxia of speech. I don’t know why and I’m sure there are many other therapists who have children with speech delays. For me, it feels kind of like a double-edged sword because as an SLP, I know how difficult a disorder this can be and I know how many years and years of therapy it can take to overcome.
As a mother, I feel the fear, guilt, worry, frustration, anguish, joy (and did I mention frustration) that I believe any parent feels when she has a child with a disorder. These are some of the questions that I have and do roll around in my head constantly: Why does he have apraxia? Is it something we could have somehow prevented? Will he ever talk normally? How will this affect him socially? How will this affect him educationally? How long will he have to be in speech therapy? As he gets older, will people make fun of him? How can I leave him with a babysitter or teacher or anyone if they can’t understand what he’s saying? Will he be able to start school on time or will he need special classes- and so on and so on. As a therapist, I have answered (or tried to answer) many of these same questions for parents of children that I have worked with but it hasn’t stopped me from worrying about those very same things.
Initially, just meeting my son’s basic needs was a struggle. When he couldn’t communicate what he wanted with either words, signs or gestures (and believe me he would try very, very hard), he would become so frustrated that he would dissolve into a temper tantrum (who could blame him) or even worse, he would just hang his little head and give up. This happened many, many times a day. We tried to head off those situations as much as possible by “guessing” from context what he might be saying or playing 20 questions – “Is it that or that?” “Is it something you eat?” “Is it something you play with?” Sometimes it was simply impossible to know what he was trying to say. It was absolutely mentally and emotionally draining.
One time at Mother’s Day Out, when my son was between 2 and 3 years old, I picked him up at dismissal and his teacher was holding him. It was apparent that he was exhausted from crying. She was well aware of his speech disorder and had tried to question him to figure out what was wrong, but the communication barrier was just too great. She told me she thought that he was just missing me more than usual that day. I was finally able to understand from him that he had fallen on the playground and scraped his leg badly enough that it was bleeding. It broke my heart that my sweet little boy had to sit there hurting because he couldn’t just “tell” his teacher what happened. The memory of what his little face looked like after crying so hard still haunts me today.
As my son got a little older, the gap between his expressive speech and those of his peers became even more noticeable. People, especially older women, love talking to toddlers, and I would cringe whenever someone would walk up to him and ask his name or how old he was or what toy was that he was playing with (as I mentioned, we never left home without them). My son would try to answer, either verbally or with sign language, but of course no one could understand him. They would just stare at him and then look at me and I would try to interpret.
What became clear to me was that most people associate not being able to talk with a lack of intelligence. I often found myself not only trying to explain his speech disorder, but defending him. I remember when my son was a little over 2, we “guided” him to be Batman for Halloween because it was one of the few words at the time that people could understand, especially in the context of wearing a costume on that particular holiday. Thank goodness he really liked superheroes and Batman. That was a huge moment for us being able to have unfamiliar listeners know what he was saying.
My goals for my son as his mother weren’t so very different than from a speech therapist’s point of view, just more personal. While we were working to expand sounds he could produce and then elicit those in words to improve overall communication, what I really wanted to hear was my son being able to say “mama” and “I love you” and for everyone else to be able to tell that’s what he was saying. I cried the first time he said both of those.
I have to admit that things are much easier now than in the beginning. He still has a long way to go but we at least understand about 80% of what he says. Of course, much of that is just that we’ve gotten used to his speech patterns. People who are not familiar with him certainly can’t understand him that well. Although my son’s speech disorder has been the primary focus of our daily lives (especially mine), we have tried very hard not to make him self-conscious about his speech.
I feel like we’ve succeeded in that so far. My son is a very talkative little boy and could very well talk as much or more than his very talkative older brother. We have often reinforced that he is doing a great job talking and that we are the ones having the trouble with understanding. We may have reinforced that a little too well because now when we don’t understand him, he tells us “you’re not listening to me.” If he only knew – I do listen and cherish every word that comes out of his little mouth.
Read the next post in this series.
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