Please welcome our dear friend Hillary Hildebrand; Mother, Vegan, Artist, Photographer, amazing woman, Sierra's BFF since before dirt was invented. Here is a little something she wrote a while back on her blog Tutti Animal about her son Elias. Here she talks about their journey through his delayed speech. She is one of the most patient, loving, honest people I know. What lucky boys Elias and his big brother Owen are to call her Mom. Just to sweeten the pot, Hil and husband Ryan are expecting their third child later this Summer.
The dictionary tells me that communication is “the activity of conveying information.” Nowhere in the definition does it say that we must use speech to convey the information, nowhere does it say that the only way to exchange emotions, ideas, or any other information is by use of words. The many animals that we share the earth with have methods of relaying important information to one another, each one is extremely unique. I’ve been studying language pathology since Elias was about 18 months old and his pediatrician suggested that Elias was on a different communication time line than the average child of his age, and since then I have become a keen observer of how people and animals communicate their needs. Our dog, for example, understands a variety of common words. If I say to Elias, “Get your shoes, let’s go outside!” our dog will jump up and run to the back door. If I am sitting on the couch and the dog needs to go outside he will sit in front of me and stare me down until I ask “Do you need to go outside?” He will throw his head back and do a little jump and then sit again. If I repeat the question, he will repeat his actions until he gets the desired response. That’s how we communicate with our dog, and it’s very effective conversation! Our cats are not as demonstrative in responding to our verbal questions, but they “ask” for thing as well. Our cats jump on our window sill every morning at the same time (haven’t they ever heard of weekends?)and meow until they are fed. When we go out on our back porch they hop into our laps and rub on us to show that they want to be pet, when they are inside and need to go out they mew at the back door and pace. We have learned to read their simple cues and they have learned what they need to do to inspire action. This is the most basic and effective communication: request and response.
When Elias was 12 months old, he was progressing at (or above ) average developmental guidelines in all areas. He was early to sit, stand, crawl, and walk. He was waving, pointing, babbling like crazy, cruising, stumbling around, chattering little basic words like “cat” and “light.” At his 12 months baby checkup his doctor declared him “So advanced!” and “Such a bright baby!” The same things that everyone said about our older son, Owen, who was always right on target with all the basic milestones you keep track of with kids.
One month later we moved to Austin from California and we saw a weird decline in Elias’ physical and verbal abilities. He stopped waving and pointing, he stopped using his basic words, and something seemed “not right.” As a mother, that was what worried me the most, that awful feeling in my gut that there was something going on with my baby that was bigger than a snag in his language development. I started to get The Fear and it would plague me to the point that I felt unable to function or think about anything except “What in the world is wrong with Elias?” He would go all spacey and stare off and I thought it was maybe seizures. He had a delayed fontanel closure, so he had an MRI to check for any brain/head abnormalities. He was not growing as fast as he started out (started 90th% and is now 15th%) so we had to check his thyroid. We had two full developmental assessments done by the leading professional in our city as well as a consultation with a team of neurologists who measured his head for symmetry, checked his palette and jaw, looked in his eyes, etc. The neurologist called us on Christmas Eve to say that Elias’ MRI looked fine and that was the best phone call of my life, hands down. The developmental assessment was not executed in a way that we agreed with, and the diagnosis was very vague “receptive and expressive delay.” The thing is that there was ZERO conviction behind this diagnosis. The specialist said “We don’t know WHY this is happening, this is our best diagnosis at this time.” They did rule our Autism and PDD, which was a step in the right direction.
We have a speech therapy appointment once a week, but the therapist always says “I wish I could tell you why Elias isn’t talking yet.” She told me last week “Every week when I leave here I wonder what is up with Elias.” He is making a little progress lately and they are skills we hope (with baited breath) that he holds on to this time. He is shaking his head “No” which seems to mean both Yes and No right now, he says Uh-oh and he can consistently make animal sounds for dinosaurs and snakes. You can watch a video of us having a “conversation” here.
Very slowly I feel like I am getting more information from Elias about why he isn’t able to talk to us. Just this week he has been trying to imitate mooo for what the cow says, which I thought would be an easy one for him since he already does “mmmmm” when he wants to eat something or is watching someone eat. Instead, he puts his lips together in the M form and blows air. At least he is trying to imitate, something he hasn’t been interested in until now, but it is showing me that his disorder is probably neurological on some level. A motor planning issue of some kind or another. The decision to take him to a neurologist and have this diagnosed by medical evaluation is something I am just not ready for right now. Keeping in mind that the theory is that early intervention is key to a child’s success in catching up by school age, and balancing that with the fact that Elias will be home/unschooled, I’d say there is not a huge conflict in my mind about whether or not to go that route. If Elias is not “caught up” at age 5, it is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever to us.
What is the rush for Elias to talk, anyway? Right now it is purely these two things; 1.) A genuine interest in what he has to say and 2.) Peace of mind for Ryan and I. We know that Elias will eventually talk, and we know that he is healthy, happy, and smart. He knows all of his shapes, colors, and animals, he can point them all out when we read books. I went through a stage of fearing that he would have trouble functioning as an adult because I had no way of knowing how much or little he knew, but he communicates with us non-verbally so we have a good idea that he is very much on target with intellectual development. He is really into letters and numbers right now, just like his friends that are the same age.
So why this post now?
Yesterday morning I went to the library to pick up some books for my Internet Vacation next week. While I was there I watched a mom and her deaf son who looked to be around 10 years old. The mom was holding a book and the son was shaking his head “no.” The mom waved her arm around the library and the boy shrugged his shoulders. They were not using typical sign language, but some kind of personal non-verbal communication. They were standing way closer together than you are used to seeing, right in each other’s space. Finally the boy took the book and put it on the shelf behind them and the mom shrugged and they left. This interaction was SO similar to the interactions that I have with my very verbal 8 year old that I just felt in awe of being able to witness this exchange. What a gift to me at this time in my life, when I was starting to feel a bit of despair about Elias’ speech deficit. Here were two people who would never “speak” to one another having perfectly natural and effective communication. I walked away thinking “Well, Elias and I DO communicate effectively!” We convey our emotions and needs, and it is perfectly successful. I am going to work on helping Elias to express himself in a way that will be understood by others, of course, but I am not so desperate as I was yesterday morning when I woke up to “cure” Elias. His lack of speech does not mean anything for his happiness, and as a parent that is my obvious ultimate goal.
I hereby resolve to let my child devlop on his own time line with our gentle guidance. We will work toward our goals with confidence and optimism, and without fear. Together our family will support each other’s growth in all areas, God knows we can all afford to evolve.