I don’t think those without a child with severe additional needs can ever truly understand how amazing it is when your child is able to do something that everyone else takes for granted.
I used to listen in amazement to very small children talking in whole sentences, arguing and discussing and having conversations. Tiny, little children. How did they just learn to do that? With no help? No obvious teaching? A miracle to those of us whose children could not even say a single word.
Did their mothers realise how incredible it was? Did they just take it for granted that their child would learn to speak with no assistance?
What is it that prevented my boys from learning to speak? Autism. Would they have learnt to talk without help? We will never know. I did not want to leave it to chance, to ‘wait and see’ like the professionals sometimes advise.
I remember the day Benjamin, aged three and a bit, finally made the right sound ‘w’ because he wanted water to gush out of a hosepipe. That was a few weeks after starting an intensive ABA (applied behavior analysis) programme at home. His tutor was out in the garden with him for hours, holding his thumb over the end of the hosepipe and lifting it off every time Benjamin said ‘w’. A eureka moment as we knew that Benjamin had finally made the connection that those sounds which came out of our mouths had a purpose, a meaning, and if he learnt them, he would have a way of communicating with us.
I never take it for granted that any of my boys can talk now. For all of them, it was hard earned and took literally years and years of help and support for them to be able to do so. All four of them started ABA programmes at a very young age (between two and three years old). They all needed intensive help to learn to talk and to use language meaningfully. Echolalia – when a child repeats back words – may sound like they know what they are saying but is not useful language at all. ‘Scripting’ – when a child repeats almost word for word, full chunks of language that they have memorised from TV programmes or adverts – is also meaningless.
Teaching a child with autism to learn to talk is a complicated process. Labelling objects with a name should be straightforward but it isn’t. If you get it wrong, it is hard to ‘unteach’ it. For example, if you were to say ‘ow, hot’ to stop a child touching a hot cup of tea, they might tell by your gestures not to touch it, but later when wanting a drink, might ask you for a ‘hot’. They have associated the word ‘hot’ with a cup. You will not give them a drink as you don’t understand what they are asking for. They in turn may get very frustrated with you for not giving them a drink. Teaching attributes such as hot, cold, wet, dry are even harder to teach. It is so much more complex than we think it will be, for our children to learn to talk, to learn something that other children acquire naturally.
I am so, so thankful that my boys can talk and ask for what they need. They don’t all have full language in the way that you or I reading this may have, but the difference from them being non verbal to being able to have conversations never ceases to amaze me.
It’s a huge skill, speech, one that we don’t fully appreciate until it is absent.