Three Things I Have Learnt About Children’s Speech From My Non Verbal Son

I thought I knew a fair amount about how children learnt to talk. I knew they watched their caregivers, mimicked sounds and eventually words, and over time those build up to two word sentences, then perhaps phrases, and finally fluent speech. I knew some children spoke a little later than others and some were a little harder to understand but until I had children of my own it never really occurred to me that some children never learn to speak at all.

My son is almost 11 and he still can’t speak. I never knew that was even possible but in the long journey I have been on since he came into my life his lack of speech has actually taught me so much about children’s speech in general. All my assumptions and generalisations were in fact ignorance based on nothing more than limited experience and lack of knowledge.

It’s amazing how having a child who struggles with something others manage seamlessly can make you learn!

So what has my non verbal child taught me about children’s speech?

Through him I have learnt that:

1. Speech is actually not the most important thing after all: communication is!

I was so caught up with panic at the fact my toddler didn’t say any words that I hadn’t noticed how he was communicating! His eyes, his body language, his facial expressions, his noises all communicated in ways that words couldn’t. He had, and still has, ‘happy noises’, ‘agitated noises’, ‘tired noises’ and ‘excited noises’ and by understanding and responding to them we can communicate really well despite a complete lack of spoken language on his part.

We (notice I had to do it too to teach him not just him) have experimented with using objects to communicate, photographs, picture cards, drawings, pointing, and sign language. He didn’t immediately latch on to any particular one but he can sign ‘yes’ and ‘thank you’, he does point now and again and in the end he developed his own very unique means of communication using google street map. What he lacks in spoken language he more than makes up for in ingenious ways of getting his point across in other ways.

2. Lack of speech doesn’t mean lack of understanding.

Receptive language and expressive language are two very different things but until I had a child who can choose his own dinner, follow a simple instruction and get his shoes when I mention I am going to the shops, but who couldn’t actually speak to me I had no idea this was normal. My son isn’t deaf. He hears everything said which unfortunately isn’t always a good thing because when I say to anyone he can’t speak most people then seem to talk to me and completely ignore my son. Even worse are comments like ‘that’s a shame’, and ‘I’m so sorry’ like my son has some awful infliction when he just happens to be non verbal.

My son does have learning difficulties but even taking that into consideration his ability to understand is years above his ability to talk back. The lack of spoken language doesn’t always mean learning difficulties though and given other ways to communicate many non talkers have shown they can gain degrees and pass their driving test and achieve in ways many thought impossible.

3. Having a child who struggles with any aspect of speech is not the fault of the parent.

Did you know that the first thing that happens when you finally get a referral accepted by speech and language therapists is that they send you on a parenting course? The message very much seems to be (wether intentional or not) is that the parent is somehow at fault. My child isn’t non verbal because I am an awful parent. Contrary to what many think my son has books read to him daily, I talk to him all time, I sing nursery rhymes,, he has experienced language enriched environments from birth and he couldn’t be loved more. He just doesn’t talk.

I’ve been through the guilt questioning what I did wrong. I’ve felt the judgement of others and often still do. I know that pitied look when a stranger talks to my child and I explain he can’t speak.

When your child doesn’t master skills other children do there is a feeing of isolation, failure and despair that you are in fact the world’s worst parent. That is, in fact, so untrue. If anything the opposite can often be more accurate as parents over compensate for their child’s struggle by taking time to attend courses, do research, and buy all sorts of resources to give their child the best chance to succeed. My experience of families with a child who struggles in any way with speech is that they move heaven and earth to support their child and go above and beyond. Having a non verbal child is very very rarely due to neglect.

My son is amazing. He is funny, clever, excitable, affectionate and fun. He just happens to be unable to speak.

His inability to form spoken words has actually taught me more about speech than I ever thought possible.

You don’t always need words to communicate anyway.

When Special Needs Parents Are Told: ‘We don’t have money for that!’

Earlier this year my son became very ill. A routine MRI carried out under general anaesthetic found a large area of concern in the right frontal lobe of his brain. He underwent 6 hours of brain surgery where a segment of his brain was removed for biopsy and it took months for him to recover. Add in the fact he has severe learning difficulties, severe autism, epilepsy, a progressive genetic condition and he’s not able to speak and might you understand why I was extremely concerned about his return to school last week.

It wasn’t until two days before school was due to start back that I finally heard about his transport arrangements, and when I did I immediately felt sick. I had just spent three months caring for him since his operation, and over ten years caring for him before that ,and I knew instantly that the arrangements to get my child to school were unsafe and put him, and others, in danger. Yet despite numerous calls, emails and letters, plus the backing of medical professionals and social work later and I was faced with the decision to either put my son in that multi occupancy vehicle or keep him home. Taking him myself isn’t an option due to distance, the fact I have another child and the fact it is logistically impossible to be in two places at once.

Why were my son’s medical, development and mental health needs ignored in favour of the cheapest option? Because, as I was told numerous times when I requested single occupancy transport,: ‘We don’t have money for that!’

Now I get that my son is costly. In the last six months alone he has had thousands of pounds of medical treatment free on the NHS including scans, tests, appointments, consultations and brain surgery. He’s had a hospital stay with twenty four hour nursing staff. Everyday he has very expensive anticonvulsant medication just to keep his epilepsy under control. He was issued a wheelchair free of charge and he receives incontinence products delivered to the home at no cost. No-one ever once said they couldn’t treat his brain mass that was making him ill because ‘we don’t have the money for that!’ No-one has ever said he can’t see his neurologist or neurosurgeon or any other specialist due to cost.

Yet all his medical and communication needs can be ignored in favour of the cheapest bid when it comes to school transport?

Then there is trying to ensure he has an assistant with him at all times in the school day. Apparently my local authority don’t allocate named one on one staff preferring the cheaper option of general classroom assistants to help wherever the schools feel necessary. Why? Because it’s best for the children, ensures every child’s needs are met and gives them the best chance of success while being kept safe? No! Because it’s the cheaper option.

Despite being non verbal at ten my son hasn’t received any input from speech and language for years. He’s never been assessed or offered an alternative communication device that could help ease his frustrations. Why? Because of lack of money!

I list so many more times when I have been told that what my child needs in order to be safe, nurtured, included, and able to achieve isn’t possible…because ‘we don’t have her money for that!’

I haven’t ever met one parent of a special needs child (or children) who hasn’t been told at one point or other ‘we don’t have money for that’ wether it’s respite, educational support, sibling support, mental health support or adaptation to their house.

‘Lack of funds’ is the single most given reason why families with special needs children struggle. It’s what affects the mental health of parents (and children) the most. It’s what deprives millions of opportunities, vital support and independence.

Yes there isn’t an infinite amount of money in the world but should the most vulnerable in society be the ones to suffer?

When you tell me ‘we don’t have he money for that’ what you are really saying is my child doesn’t matter. His safety doesn’t matter;his welfare doesn’t matter; his life doesn’t matter. You are saying society doesn’t care.

Everyone has potential. Every life matters. Should there be a cost attached to vital support? What if that was your child put at risk?

What if someone said to you that you didn’t matter, you were not worth investing in, you should just accept what is given wether it meets your needs or not? Would you accept second best because someone said ‘we don’t have money for that’?

There are too many children with needs being put in school transport that is unsuitable, unsafe and transporting them for way over the government guidelines of time just because their parents are told there is no money for any other option.

There are too many children struggling in education, having to be withdrawn because of inadequate provision and placed in mainstream when it isn’t right all because of lack of funds.

There are too many families denied vital respite putting lives at risk all because of lack of money.

There are too many children and young people denied access to support such as speech and language, mental health workers or occupational health all because of cutbacks.

Our children matter. Our young people matter.

You can’t put a cost on the importance of a life.

My child deserves so much more than your glib and thoughtless comment of ‘we don’t have money for that!’

Your child deserves better too.