Helping my child find her words

I’ve known for a while that my daughter has trouble communicating verbally. If I were totally honest with myself, I’ve known something was up since she was a baby, and called me “Mumma” instead of “Mama.” Babies say Mama. It’s in all the books. But I thought it was cute, and chalked it up to the amount of BBC we watch.

Plus, she did say a few words early. Once, when she was 4 or 5 months old, as I kissed her goodbye to go to work she said, “Bye-bye, Mumma.” She never said them again. But I was just amazed that she said them in the first place.

Still, though, when she started calling everyone, including me, “Dada,” I should have spoken up. But my pride was wounded. I carried her in my body. I was the one who walked the floor with her for hours, until the pain from my c-section incision made me cry, when she had colic. I was the one who couldn’t be parted from her for a few hours, let alone overnight. I upended my life for her, and she called me Dada.

Eventually, she did start calling me Mumma again, so I relaxed. But she didn’t say much else. Her father was a late talker, though, so I let it slide.

For about three years.

There were signs, of course, that something was amiss. Doctors spoke to her like she could respond. (Why are you asking her? I’d think. She’s a baby. She can’t tell you.) A study we participated in diagnosed her with a verbal delay of a year or better. Kids in stores — younger kids — would talk to her in complete, coherent sentences. But Anya was silent.

Not that she couldn’t understand us. She understood every word we said, sometimes when I wished she couldn’t. Spelling words out in front of her didn’t even work; she learned very quickly what C-A-N-D-Y and N-A-P spell. But she mostly communicated with us using gestures and grunts.

She’s an only child, I told myself. Surrounded by doting adults. She doesn’t talk because she doesn’t have to.

She’s been an overachiever and a perfectionist pretty much since birth (oh, the temper tantrums she threw while she was learning to roll over!), so I figured she was waiting until she knew she could speak perfectly before she even tried to speak. That she’d start out talking in complete, grammatically correct sentences.

They say Einstein was a late talker.

Still, red flags were starting to go up. Strangers were starting to treat her like she had some sort of developmental delay. Or worse, like she was just a brat. Other kids would shy away from her, sensing something was up. She started throwing tantrums when she couldn’t make us understand her.

She’s tall for her age. People are judgmental assholes. Those kids’ parents took the “stranger danger” thing a bit too far. Toddlers throw tantrums all the time.

Then we concluded the study, and the researchers urged me to get her into speech therapy. The words “special education” were bandied about.

Stupid scientists. Kids are not machines; they develop at different rates. She’s so advanced in other areas. So what if she’s slow to talk? Her father learned how to talk without any special intervention, and now you can hardly shut him up.

But I couldn’t ignore it any longer. My child was nearly 3, and just…didn’t talk.

Also distressing to me was her attitude towards books. I’ve read to her since she was in utero. When she was a baby, she loved it. She’d listen to me read four, five, six books in a row, those bright, alert eyes never leaving my face. But as she got older, she started shying away from books. Then outwardly disliking them. Not just books, either. Flash cards, coloring books…anything and everything bearing the printed word elicited anything from disinterest to an outright tantrum.

I started speaking at 6 months. I learned to read at 3. I wrote my first story at 7. In high school, I wrote thousands of pages of fiction (all crap, but still). I’ve worked as a writer and editor since I was 25. I read Kindle books while I walk, even after editing for 10+ hours a day. Words are my thing.

I do not understand why my child tantrums at the suggestion of snuggling up with her mother and being read to. But she does. I do not understand how my child can say a word once, then be unable to repeat those same sounds, but it happens all the time. And it’s terrifying.

So I made an appointment with a speech therapist, and she was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech. Which basically means that while she has a vocabulary of hundreds, thousands of words, she doesn’t say them because she has trouble remembering how to make the sounds.

I had never even heard of this issue before, but the diagnosis fit. She was talking a little more, but still tended to call everything “dat” (like she used to call all of the adults in her family “Dada”). The words she would actually say were more rote phrases (Mumma, Daddy, please, thank you, welcome, bye-bye, bless you) that she’d heard us say a thousand times; however, though she mimicked our inflections perfectly, she usually garbled the enunciation: “please” became “eese” and “thank you” became “dank oo.” When she attempted spontaneous speech, it came out as gibberish.

Still, it wasn’t an easy diagnosis to swallow. We really couldn’t afford the therapy, and I’d just found out I was pregnant, to boot. But could I sit idly by, knowing what I now knew? Would she ever speak normally? Would the world ever see her as I see her — sweet, brilliant, kind, fierce, beautiful — or would they just see her as “special,” with all its stomach-churning implications?

Part of me was tempted to just work with her myself. I am a communicator. I have two college degrees that say I know my way around the English language. Plus, I’m intelligent; I can read up on this stuff, the theories and techniques and strategies. Nobody is more motivated to help my child than me. But I still had that nagging doubt: What if therapy were the only thing standing between her and a “normal” life?

So despite my misgivings, she began twice-weekly speech therapy. And at first it was wonderful. She really clicked with her therapist, and looked forward to sessions. She didn’t seem to be making a huge amount of progress, but enough that I couldn’t justify quitting.

Then her therapist left the clinic, and we went through a series of substitutes until a new one was hired. But these sessions rarely went smoothly. She just didn’t seem to click with these other therapists, any of them. She began dreading the sessions, and throwing tantrums that wasted most of the allotted time. Even more worrying was that she seemed to be backsliding — losing words she’d acquired, and resisting our efforts to get her to talk. Finally, I couldn’t justify the expense any more. Financial hardship that leads to improvements is one thing. Financial hardship that seems to actively be doing harm is stupid. I cancelled her standing appointments.

And then the most amazing thing happened: She blossomed. Overnight, it seems. Every day, she talks more and more, and the words are clearer and clearer each time. Not just single words, either, but complete sentences. Grammatically correct ones. It’s still a little fuzzy around the edges, but it’s speech — speech that is in many ways more advanced than her peers.

Not that she doesn’t still have some issues. Consonant clusters are hard for her: the lk in milk, for instance, and the pl in please. She usually just drops these syllables. But we’re working on it. And she’s working on it. It still comes as a shock when she comes up to me and starts talking; after all this time, it’s incredible for me to finally know what’s going on behind those gray eyes of hers. To hear her sweet voice. There is no sound more beautiful than that.

Such a wonderful feeling, to finally have a conversation with my daughter.


2 thoughts on “Helping my child find her words

  1. Thanks for sharing, Nicole. There is nothing more difficult than being a parent when you don't know what is best for your child. I wish you and Anya the best of times (especially through those teenage years) ;)


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