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.