What My Ten Year Old Taught Me About Learning Difficulties

A few months ago my ten year old daughter said something that changed the entire way I look at learning difficulties. I hope it will make you think too.

I remembered it was a Wednesday because that’s the day that clinic is always on. I had picked my daughter up early from school as she had an appointment to see a specialist. My daughter attends mainstream school where she is thriving even though she is autistic, has an eating disorder and anxiety. Coming out of school for appointments is a regular occurrence and this specialist was one she had been seeing for six years. I wasn’t expecting anything significant to happen as that day was just a regular check up.

I was right; the check up went as expected and there was nothing significant to report…well nothing significant about the appointment that is.

What I didn’t expect to happen was the conversation in the car on the journey there. Who knew that a ten minute conversation could leave a lasting impression that has radically changed my thinking!

The journey started off quietly. My daughter is so anxious in school she doesn’t speak (a condition known as selective mutism) and sometimes if I pick her up from school during the day it can take a few minutes before she chats freely. I always carry on and let her talk when she feels ready, if she even wants to that is.

I pulled out of the school car park and headed to the clinic. I was at the second set of traffic lights when she started talking. Out of nowhere she asked a simple question:

Mum, do I have learning difficulties?”

As I drove I answered her question as honestly and as simply as I could. I have a background in teaching and thought I had a good knowledge of what learning difficulties is so I told her that we usually class learning difficulties as a struggle with academic things like maths, reading, writing and understanding what people say. She thought about that for a brief moment and then checked her own understanding by listing a few children she knew from her class, also including her own brother who attends a different school and who has severe non verbal autism, who she thought fitted this description. Knowing her class well from volunteering in her school I was able to confirm to her that, yes, all the children she had mentioned, including her brother, did in fact have learning difficulties.

As I concentrated on the road ahead I wasn’t expecting her next comment at all.

Mum, I don’t like the name learning difficulties.

I had to ask her why. She was ready to answer right away.

“Well I struggle with some things but people think I am clever just because I can read and write, but all those children I mentioned are clever too. I mean my brother can use google street map, My friend knows loads about superheroes and my other friend is great at building Lego. So why do people say they have learning difficulties just because reading or counting is hard. That’s unfair.”

I was so glad I was just pulling into the parking at the clinic because what she had just said was so powerful I needed her to say it again.

‘Naomi can you say that last bit again please?’

“Ok mum. Why do people say my friends and my brother have learning difficulties just because reading and counting is hard for them. I think that’s unfair. Don’t we all struggle with something?’

I let her words sink in before I even turned my engine off. I couldn’t actually believe that I had never thought about it that way before.

It took my ten year old to shake up my beliefs. She doesn’t see any of her friends, or her brother, as different. She recognised that everyone struggles with something, after all even though she could read and write and count well here she was attending a clinic because of something she struggled with. Why wasn’t her issue classed as learning difficulties when her friends and brother’s struggles were?

Children can teach us so much if we let them. What my ten year old taught me about learning difficulties is something I will never forget.

It isn’t fair to judge anyone by their struggles when every single one of us struggles with something. We really aren’t any different to anyone else.

Thats powerful. I had no idea my ten year old could be so insightful.

Let silent words be heard

My children live in a different world to me. They have autism. I don’t. They order the world, understand language and process sensory feedback in an entirely different way to me.But because they were diagnosed at just 3 years and nine months and 4 years and 10 months old they were unable to tell me much about their world. So I took it upon myself to learn about theirs.

I bought so many books about autism. And read them all. Around 99% of them were written by people like me who do not have autism but who felt they understood what my children may be experiencing. I went to training courses about autism. They were all run by people without autism too, trying to explain something they have never lived with. But I did find out something very early on: no two people with autism are the same. I already had that figured out with two very different children both with the same diagnosis!

I wanted to know what it was like for my own two children. I wanted to know how best to help them and teach them. I wanted to be part of their world.

So I watched them. I sat with them. I held them. I listened to them even when it seemed like to everyone else there was nothing to hear. And everyday I prayed that one day they would open up to me.

This week my six-year-old explained to me a little about why she never spoke a word in nursery for the two and a half years she attended. Speech and Language therapists diagnosed selective mutism. I had no idea why my daughter was speaking so fluently at home but not at all outside of the house.

It was relaxed, accidental, and natural. As I read a bed time story to her and read a line that said ”Hi Tony!’, called Topsy, but her voice came out not quite loud enough’ (Topsy and Tim start school by Jean and Gareth Adamson). Naomi suddenly opened up. She knew how Topsy felt. She went on to share how that happens to her all the time: She wants to talk but the words just won’t come out of her mouth, how it was like the words just stuck in her throat, and sometimes her mouth could not even open up. She was scared and worried that she would get a row. She was shaking because things were new and different and she seemed so small. Her voice was scared of new people and liked to hide and sometimes she was sure she was talking because she could hear herself but now she realises it was just her brain and not really her mouth. She was worried that once her voice did come out she may not be able to control it and it might never stop. It was like someone jumped into her mouth sometimes and just stole away all the words she was trying to say.

Here I was suddenly getting a glimpse into her world. We had read this story so many times yet tonight she suddenly realised she could identify with one of the characters. And more than any book, or course, or professional input, I got to learn so much more about my daughter, her anxiety, her selective mutism and her autism.

Naomi’s twin brother is totally non verbal. I may never ever get the privilege of a night like this with him. I may never know why he bites himself, insists on mashed potato and gravy at every meal, only ever wants to wear a red school jumper or what keeps him awake all night. So I will have to learn to listen to him some other way.

Last week there was a social media campaign to support and bring awareness of non verbal children, especially those with autism. You could say that for a long time that applied to both my children, but for very different reasons. When Naomi heard about it she was desperate to be part of it. For her brother. But also for all those other children who like her have struggled to communicate with selective mutism.

I struggled to write this week. Writers block? Maybe. Or maybe I just needed to be quiet for a while and let those silent words be heard.

My children live in a different world to me. Both of them want to tell me what it is like. Only one of them can now explain that with words. The other is silent.

But let us listen. Let us put our fingers over our mouths to keep them from speaking. And let those who are struggling have a change to tell us in whatever way they can. Let us hear from our own children. Let us hear from those who struggle:

Let silent words be heard.image