Atti has a significant speech delay, and we’re always trying to unlock the mystery of exactly how to help him past it. You would expect a speech delay in a kid with Cerebral Palsy, it’s even more common than needing a wheelchair since all those tiny mouth and tongue muscles have to coordinate together in micro movements at a rapid pace, but Atti’s doesn’t seem to be so clear cut.
For one thing, he’s capable of making a whole lot of sounds he just doesn’t use in speech. Sometimes I think this kid is going to be the next Michael Winslow. He imitates the car, the dishwasher, the Gu-Gung of the Law and Order gavel, the static of an HBO production bumper. And his singing. You guys, his singing. He hears a song three times and he can sing it perfectly. He sings songs I’ve never heard. He sings songs I don’t even realize he’s heard as I’m flipping between radio stations. He sings introductions to podcasts he’s only heard second hand through my earbuds. He sings songs that I made up in a waiting room once and completely forgot about. He sings and sings and sings. Often jumping off a word in the conversation or choosing a song that can answer a question. He’s a prodigy.
So with that kind of skill, you’d think, or at least I would think, that he’d be able to communicate in words. He’s capable of making the sounds (close enough to be understood, anyway), he gets the meaning of them, and yet, he doesn’t talk to me. He repeats scenes from his favorite books or television shows, he’s constantly repeating the sayings his toys make, but if I ask him what he learned at school that day? Crickets.
At our last IEP I was sharing my frustration about this with his team. I really want him to enter Kindergarten in a typical classroom, because he’s freaking brilliant. He sat on my lap as I texted Bear and he read his first sentence today. I love you. If he had eyes that could stay on the same line I think he probably would have done it years ago. But if he can’t communicate with his teacher or follow directions or answer questions, that could be a real hindrance. School is all about performance. You have to be able to prove you know stuff on cue.
In that meeting one of the program directors said, “You know, if we were talking about an older child, I’d almost wonder if he was a bit of a perfectionist.”
She blew my mind. Perfectionist. Of course. He is my child after all. He certainly has some speech issues to work through, but his real communication problems aren’t from a lack of ability. When he sings a song, each word has a place. There is a right word in every moment. When he repeats the things his toys say, he can get it exactly right. He can be understood. He doesn’t have to guess. We don’t have to guess. He doesn’t have to fail.
Since that meeting we’ve been working on reinforcing him whenever he makes an attempt, and slowly, slowly, slowly, we’re seeing our efforts bear fruit. Now when he wants to tell me how much he loves me, he’ll use a saying from his toy, but with a twist. “You make me happy too…Mama!” He’ll say with a gleam in his eye. Watching to see if I caught how he used my name instead of the name his toy uses. He’s starting to repeat what we ask him to say. Still not originating speech, but being brave enough to try and follow our lead.
Our last time at therapy we were trying to get Atti to play with a basketball hoop, but he was not feeling it. Instead of stretching his arms over his head like we wanted, he’d toss the ball somewhere in the direction of the net and then try and talk us into letting that be enough. I know this because he was using my words against me. “Good try, my sweet boy!” “Excellent work!” “Atti did it!” That’s apparently what I say to him when he tries, and so that’s what he said to me to tell me he was.