Monday, December 2, 2013

Communicating With Our Toddler

It's been quite a while since I spoke about Tony's speech delay, and I wanted to blog about his therapy, his progress, and our journey with this very special little boy of ours. I began mentally blogging this post yesterday morning, when I came downstairs and went over to the couch to give Tony a hug and kiss. He smiled at me, touched my face and said, "Mama beautiful! Love my mama." My eyes filled with tears, not only because I have been abundantly blessed with the sweetest little boy in the world, but also because there was a time when I wasn't sure if Tony was capable of speaking at all. To hear his precious little voice, to listen to him talk excitedly about the upcoming holidays, to see his apparent relief at his ability to communicate with Will and I...I am so grateful.

We moved from Boston, MA to Shreveport, LA right before Tony's first birthday. His speech (or lack thereof) wasn't a concern to us at that point, as he was meeting or exceeding all of his milestones. It was sometime after his first birthday I began to wonder why Tony wasn't babbling more, or taking an interest in communicating with Will and I. Tony was enrolled in a baby music/gym class at Gymboree, and I remember looking around at the other children in his class, and wondering why they were beginning to communicate with their parents, when my child clearly had no intention of doing so. When Tony was eighteen months old, we brought him to his pediatrician's office for his checkup, and Will and I filled out the autism signs sheet. Fortunately, nothing was standing out as a red flag...except his lack of speech. Our son was just not verbal, not in any way, shape or form. Our pediatrician came back into the room, and listened to our concerns. She told me much of what I already knew; as a general rule, boys talk later, every child meets milestones at a different rate, and as long as he was speaking roughly twenty-five words we didn't have anything to worry about. I looked at her and said, "Well, the only word Tony will say is 'Da.' He communicates by gestures, and I certainly know when he isn't happy about something...but beyond that, he just isn't speaking." Our pediatrician gave us a couple of options that day, among them the choice to wait a few more months to see if something would just "click" and he would start talking, or having him evaluated right away. Will and I made the decision to wait a few more months; after all, Will told me that he was a late talker, and we probably didn't have anything to worry about.

Those next few months, we tried everything we could think of to jump start Tony's speech. We never talked "baby talk" to him. I read him books every single day. When we would go grocery shopping, I would talk about every.single.item I put in the cart. We played little games, such as Pat-a-Cake, I sang songs all the time (I still hear The Wheels On The Bus in my sleep)...zilch. Nada. Niente. Despite my consistency, despite my efforts, Tony absolutely would not say anything other than "Da" or "Wass dat?" when pointing at an object. I called our pediatrician back, and asked for a referral to have Tony evaluated. Within a few weeks, we found ourselves at the Mollie Webb Center for Speech and Hearing in Shreveport, waiting to have Tony evaluated by two speech pathologists. They brought us into a small room with toys and books, and the ladies spent the next two hours speaking to Will and I, playing with Tony, and evaluating his very limited speech. They also tested Tony's hearing (he passed the newborn hearing screening test at the hospital when he was born, but we figured it couldn't hurt to have it checked again). Everything was fine in the hearing department. The next step was a more in-depth, one-on-one evaluation for two months at Shreveport's Scottish Rite Center.

It was during this one-on-one evaluation that we were introduced to sign language, and even though Tony's speech didn't improve, he quickly picked up on the signs for "more," "milk," "please" and "thank you." It was a relief to finally be able to communicate with our son, even on the most basic level. After two months had passed, Tony's speech therapist told me that he would benefit from continuous speech therapy, back at the Mollie Webb center. Cost wasn't an issue; everything would be paid for by the Scottish Rite. We just needed to get the official approval from the speech pathologists at Mollie Webb, and Tony would be able to begin his twice-a-week speech therapy in the Toddler Play and Speak group for children his age. We received the approval at the beginning of December, and Tony was enrolled for his first semester of "Big Boy School" for the middle of January.

To be perfectly honest, the next couple of months that followed were the most difficult for me. I wasn't sure what kind of expectations to have, but mine were definitely unrealistic. I was hoping against hope that Tony just needed a little jump start, and everything would magically fall into place. I wasn't alone with that expectation; everyone else seemed to feel the same way I did. To be clear, I was never frustrated with Tony, but I harbored so much guilt over his speech delay. I'm always quick to blame myself if something isn't quite right, no matter how illogical that may be. I told myself that I was Tony's mother, it was my job to give him a good foundation, I should have done this, I should have done that, why did I ever let him watch TV (even though the most he ever wanted to watch was the theme song to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse), why didn't I read to him more (even though we read for almost an hour every day), etc etc. The guilt was overwhelming. The comments from family members, friends and complete strangers did little to comfort me, either. "So when is that child going to start talking??!!" Don't you think I'd like to know the answer to that as well? "You don't have anything to worry about, that little boy will talk when he's ready." Maybe not. I had no idea if Tony's delay was an indication of a serious cognitive developmental issue. "Well, my co-worker's daughter is the same age as Tony, and you should just hear that little girl sing songs she hears on TV!" Blank stare in return. How, exactly, am I supposed to respond to that? "Wow, thanks for that. You know, I wasn't beating myself up enough over his speech delay, all day, every day. You're absolutely right, I should be comparing my 2-year old to every other toddler in the state of Louisiana, just to dig the knife in a little deeper." While I truly believe that most of these people had the best of intentions (trying to reassure me that every child develops at their own pace), more often than not I would take their comments as a direct insult to me, to my ability to parent my child, or as an insinuation that Tony wasn't speaking because of something I did, or didn't do. I found it increasingly difficult to respond with charity and kindness to these comments, and more often than not I would fire back with a snappy, defensive reply.

After Tony's first semester of big boy school (which I will now refer to as BBS) ended, I remember thinking, "So...that's it? He's still not talking. Where do we go from here?" Fortunately, a week later Will and I received a letter in the mail from Mollie Webb, informing us that Tony had been approved for a second semester of BBS. I was thrilled. Even if we weren't seeing any progress yet, Tony enjoyed his classes, and he always had positive reports from the speech pathologists. My mom bought Tony a Baby Signing Time video, and while the songs made me want to blow my brains out, Tony really took to the video. We began using signs on a daily basis, and it seemed to give him a little boost of confidence.

I'll never forget when everything truly "clicked" for Tony. It began with him pointing out objects, and saying the words. "Dog, TV, milk, mocky cheese" all became common, everyday words at our house. I remember one day in June, shortly after Alessandra's baptism, Will took Tony and the dog out for a walk. They came back into the house around noon, and Tony ran right up to me and said, "Mama have please mocky cheese?" I burst into tears right then and there. His very first sentence! (Go figure, it had to do with food. Tony is definitely his mama's boy). After that day...it was game on. Tony began speaking more and more, and he was delighted with every word he mastered. He seemed to have an easier time forming sentences (although his sentences are still pretty jumbled. At times, he kind of sounds like someone who learned English as a second language), and his overall mood greatly improved. Previously, he would get so frustrated with his inability to communicate, he would throw tantrum after tantrum. Well, I'd be lying if I said the tantrums disappeared, but they definitely aren't occurring with the same frequency.

Tony recently completed his third semester of Toddler Speech and Play therapy, and before the last day ended, one of the instructors pulled me aside and told me that Tony is ready to move up a level, to the class with the 3-5 year old children. It still meets twice every week, only this class is 3 hours instead of 2, and it includes one-on-one time with the speech pathologists. I was pleased to hear this, as Tony definitely needs some work on his articulation and sentence structure. I am so grateful that we were able to get Tony the help he needed, and all without having to pay a dime. As odd as this may sound, I'm grateful for his speech delay. Like all first time parents, when I was pregnant with Tony I had the fairy tale idea of parenting. I would do everything "right" and I would have the "perfect" child (whatever that means). I would read, play, and sing songs with my baby all day, and he or she would meet or exceed every milestone, be a favorite of all the teachers, excel in school, music, art or sports, get a full ride to Yale...you get it. While I'll admit I didn't think quite that far in advance, I got a real-and necessary- wake up call in terms of parenting. I had it in my head that if I did everything right, there was no reason that my child wouldn't quickly rise to the top. That was a foolish mentality, and it wasn't fair to either me or Tony. Nowadays, Will and I have the mentality of, "Each of our children will have different wants and needs. It's our job as parents to give them every opportunity to succeed at their own pace." I don't ever want Tony to feel that Will and I were disappointed in his speech delay, or that we were trying to "fix" him by sending him off to speech therapy at the age of two. This is something I struggled with for quite some time. It's something I spent many a night praying about, something Will and I talked about at length, and something I brought into the confessional one Saturday afternoon. We ultimately decided that we weren't trying to fix Tony, but we wanted him to have every opportunity to grow and learn with other children his age. If his development had, God forbid, been a serious medical issue rather than a speech delay, we wouldn't have hesitated to get Tony the best possible treatment.

This has been quite the journey for our family, and while we've seen some incredible progress so far, we're not finished (not by a long shot). All Will and I can do is help Tony every day to develop his speech, to give him encouragement and praise, and above all, to let this sweet little boy know how very, very loved he is.


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