Parenting a speech-delayed child

Friends, throughout the course of my life, I have engaged with countless children. I’ve taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School classes since I was 17. I’ve worked in a preschool. I’ve babysat the littles of friends and family. I have three children of my own. All that said, I can honestly say that I have never met a child in my life that talks as much as my son, Jaxon.

The kid is rarely silent.

He talks about movies, Minecraft, outer space, God, how fast he is, asks how old _______ will be when he is _______, and tells me he loves me five million times a day. Nothing is off limits for this boy once he gets comfortable with you, and he talks about something nonstop. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes it’s absolutely exhausting (especially when I’m in the car. I cannot handle it in the car–that’s sacred time for me 😂).

To have a child like Jaxon makes it especially difficult to have a child like Scarlett. Scarlett is finally able to communicate slightly…and I mean slightly. She can answer yes or no questions most of the time, but there are times where I ask her something that I know the answer to, and she gives me the opposite response. So her yes/no is fairly accurate, but not bulletproof. She also can tell me she wants to sing, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, by smiling, pointing at her dimples, and dancing (and friends, I die when she does it, it’s the cutest thing ever). Anything outside of these two things are basically done on a case-by-case basis, through whatever means necessary.

She has a decent number of words (about 15), but only a few are functional (“no” and “stop”, for example). Most of her vocabulary consists of exclamations (“look”, “oh no!”, “uh-oh”, etc), and while so cute to hear, are not terribly helpful for functional communication.

If you go to school for speech pathology, early childhood education, or some other related field, they teach you that at two, a child should have a decently large vocabulary, be learning several new words a day, attempting to imitate a word if prompted, and starting to combine 2-word sentences. Scarlett does none of these, and that is hard for me. It is hard for me to know that Scarlett is severely delayed in an area that is so important in every aspect of life.

She had a speech evaluation done a few weeks ago, and her deficit was made quite clear. I’ve said it before, but you can know that your child is behind without actually understanding just how much. When you go in for an evaluation and you get the report, it’s right there in black and white. There is no more guessing or knowing-whilst-not-actually-knowing. Scarlett’s total language score sat somewhere in the 12-16 month range (the exact score given in her report was not correct so I don’t have the exact age, we’re waiting for a revised report). More upsetting than that, though, (since I already had a ballpark idea of that due to her past HELP assessments) was her auditory comprehension score– or, her ability to understand what people say. Scarlett scored at the level of an 8-month old.

That, friends, was rough. It’s been difficult for me to accept the fact that there are a lot of things that I say to my child that she likely doesn’t understand.

Does she understand when I tell her she’s okay after she falls and gets hurt? Does she understand me when I leave her somewhere safe, and tell her I’ll be back soon? Does she understand when she’s scared, and I tell her it’s going to be okay? Does she understand me when I tell her I love her?

Friends, I know that there are non-vocal ways to relay all of the scenarios I listed above– but the fact that I am (for now) unable to reassure my child verbally is difficult. Thus is the half of the plight of parenting a child with a speech delay. It is difficult to realize that the little things that people say or do to encourage, help, show affection to, or validate someone are lost on your child.

On a more lighthearted note, communicating with a speech-delayed child can also make you feel a little OCD at times. The therapy idea is to repeat a word three times for proper object label reinforcement. For example, if I am trying to teach Scarlett that a cup is a cup, when she’s ready for a drink, I’d hold one up and say something like, “this is a cup. Would you like the cup? I will give you the cup”. It’s a little bit exhausting to try and come up with three different ways to use the same word! You eventually begin to feel a little crazy and like your entire world revolves around the number three.

Anyway, moving on.

Most parents have a general idea of when their child will talk. Most children say their first words around 12months(ish). Some sooner, some later, but 12 months is average (PSA: friends, your child was not saying mama or dada at 4 months. Syllable repetition is normal early sound/speech development, but your child has no association of what that word means. If they do, call someone, because you have birthed the next Einstein). You know that around 12 months when your child says mama/dada, they know who you are, what your label is, and that they have a relationship with you. You can know that somewhere around two(ish), you are likely going to hear your child say I love you (or some version of it), if that is a phrase commonly said in your household. The parent of a speech-delayed child has no idea when these things will be said, and for some, these momentous milestones will never come. The uncertainty is a heavy burden to bear.

Again, obviously there are other ways a child can convey the above sentiments– but friends, words carry immense power. Every parent has days where you wonder why on earth God thought you were qualified to be responsible for such precious little souls– and if you’re reading this and you don’t feel that way sometimes, please, message me your secrets! There are days where I feel like I am the WORST mother– and somehow, those are always the days my kids humble me by saying I’m their best friend, or their favorite mama, or that they love me six billion-seventy four-twelve-five-ten-three hundred (Jaxon’s new thing). They tell me on the most routine, boring days that it was the best day ever. I think these tiny things are God’s way of reminding me that I am not messing up my children to epic proportions, and to give myself some grace every now and then– as well as serving as a reminder to check my heart (thanks, John Crist) and attitude. It is hard to know that for the foreseeable future, my child will be unable to communicate verbally to tell me that I’m doing an okay job, and that my actions will not cause her to end up in weekly therapy as an adult.

*Please don’t misunderstand: I know my child does not resent me. Sometimes, though, the mind of a parent of a speech-delayed child (and a parent in general) is not rational. It’s just a thing.

All of this said: a child with a speech delay is likely to become a master of non-verbal communication. Whether their point-game is on point (see what I did there?), they have the ability to utilize ASL, or they make you become the world record holder for the longest game of, “oh, do you want _______”– they will compensate somehow for their lack of ability to speak.

It’s here that I am going to insert my “here’s what you should do” bit. If you know a speech-delayed child– get involved in trying to learn their non-verbal cues. Ask their parent(s) how they communicate and try and interact with them on their terms. The biggest thing though, is to celebrate the tar out of their speech milestones! I can guarantee you that us parents LIVE for every new word, for every new sound, and for every moment our children are able to verbally communicate an idea/need (even if it’s only through one word). Celebrate the little victories, friends, because for a parent of a speech-delayed child, every small victory is a big one.

To my fellow parents of speech-delayed children, I salute you:

An open letter to my husband

Dear Husband,

We are already in year five of marriage, can you believe it? There are some days where it’s felt like we’ve been together for a lifetime, and other days where I look at you and wonder who on earth I married (like the other day when you said you always order fajitas– clearly we need to go out to dinner more often so I can verify that comment). Yesterday was Father’s Day and I didn’t make a public post, because I was still working on this! Sorry 😉

Our marriage so far has honestly felt like a blur…probably because I’ve spent most of it pregnant and/or sleep deprived from taking care of our tiny babies. But here I am five years later, saying with no doubt that telling you “yes” was the best decision I’ve ever made.

We have had incredible highs, you and I. We’ve brought three amazing, beautiful children into the word. We’ve done a little bit of traveling (let’s do more!) and seen some of God’s most beautiful creations. We’ve eaten delicious food, and drank delicious drinks (lookin’ at you, Dutch Bros– come to Modesto). We’ve done date nights at home, we’ve done them out, and I love them no matter which it is. We’ve had dance parties at 8am, at midnight, and in the car. We’ve laughed when were told our car was on fire when we knew better. You are my person.

Along with the highs, we’ve also had horrible lows. We’ve experienced the deaths of family and friends together. We’ve moved halfway across the country (moving is the worst, friends). We’ve experienced some of the worst illnesses of our lives (I’m talking Lyme and that awful flu after Cora was born). We’ve experienced life with you on a graveyard shift. We’re currently living the life of parents of a special needs child. In a few months we’ll be adding the stress of graduate school, and I’m pretty convinced that that will send both of us to the limits of our sanity. I’m thankful to have gone through all of this with you.

All of this said, I am beyond blessed to be your wife. I love you, even on the days where I’d like to make you sleep in the garage.

But right under loving being your wife, I love being your partner in parenting. You are, and always have been the gravity to my universe. From the moment I told you I was pregnant with Jaxon to the moment the doctor told us our daughter had Autism, you have been calm and steady. You are my exact opposite in this respect, and I’m thankful that God had that foresight when he made you for me.

These last few months have been difficult. We know this. I have never felt more unsure in my life as I have these last few months. I have questioned my purpose in life (is a life-crisis at 27 a thing?), I have questioned my faith, I have questioned my ability to be a good mother– and you have quieted my questions and insecurities with steady encouragement. I am thankful to have you– especially now, when fear seems to be my middle name. Thank you for always reminding me that we can handle whatever comes our way with our girl. Special needs parenting is not for the weak– thank you for helping give me strength.

You come home from long days at work and still play with our kids, and help me around the house. You’ve worked full-time and gone to school for all five years of marriage so that I could stay home with our kids, and I am thankful for that. You set an example of hard work and perseverance, and I am thankful that our children get to see and draw from that.

When I ask Jaxon what he wants to be when he grows up, he responds, “a daddy. Then a preacher”. I love both of those responses– because he gets both of those aspirations from the most important dads in my life– you, and my dad. If you didn’t set the example of what a dad should be and look like, that would not be his answer.

You choose to be present in the lives of our children. You could be off doing things you love on your days off, but choose to be at home with us instead. You attend all of the activities your work schedule allows you to, and I hope that you don’t ever think that these things go unnoticed (by me or our children).

Cora’s “all about Dad” says that your job is to protect her– and you do. You save her/us from monsters, from the sounds in the backyard at night, and from all the bugs that California has to offer. I don’t doubt that as she grows, you will do your best to continue to shield her from as much of life’s hurt and fear as you can.

To conclude, thank you for being a great husband. Thank you for being a great dad. I am forever thankful to be your partner in both marriage and parenting.

Love,

Your wife