The day my daughter first called me “Mommy,” I cried. I mean loud, ugly sobs. She was almost 5 years old at the time, and it had been a long, arduous journey to get that one word.
We became suspicious when she was 18 months old and not speaking at all. We took her in for evaluations, first with her regular pediatrician, then an ear, nose, throat doctor who checked her hearing, and finally, a developmental pediatrician.
The specialists noted that she had general delays in speech and language, emotional, social, cognitive, and motor development. They could not diagnose her because she was too young, but they recommended that we start early intervention or therapy as soon as possible.
We did not want to start therapy. Instead, we did something that seemed pretty reasonable at the time. We waited.
She had no official diagnosis. How could we be sure that therapy was going to help her if we didn’t know what was wrong?
Also, starting therapy almost seemed like a betrayal, like we were admitting to our daughter and ourselves that there was something wrong with her, that she was less of a person.
Almost two years passed before we began to understand the consequences of our decision to wait. Our daughter stayed stuck in time, falling further and further behind children her age. She did not have the skills to start nursery. Preschools turned her away. We were now scrambling to catch up.
It was when we finally started with therapy that we discovered the depth of our mistake.
First, the diagnosis didn’t matter as much as we thought it did. Early intervention helps, whether a child has autism, Global Developmental Delay, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), ADHD, cerebral palsy, sensory integration issues, apraxia, or any other diagnosis. Therapy is a focused practice that is carefully designed to help each child with their unique developmental issues.
Therapy is like a basketball camp for the mind. Children do drills to practice all of the skills they will need to become good basketball players. At therapy, instead of practicing dribbling, shooting, passing, your child will be practicing the brain functions that are required to strengthen their ability to learn.
The second thing we discovered is the brain is pre-programmed to do certain things at certain times. Because we waited so long, we missed those windows of optimal brain development.
We made it harder for our daughter to catch up.
Language skills are also part of the foundation for reading comprehension and mathematical problem-solving skills. By waiting, we had weakened those foundations, and as a result, our daughter struggled with reading and math later on.
We also learned that it is harder to catch up once delays accumulate. We searched far and wide for fast solutions, but for developmental delays, there are no silver bullets. Early intervention is practice; practice changes the brain by strengthening connections between neurons. Because changes are happening on a cellular level, they take time.
And time is money. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, Applied Behavioural Analysis, all of it is a massive commitment of time and finances. We are very grateful that we could afford to pay for early intervention. I often wonder what it must be like to know your child needs these services and not have the money to pay for them.
This drain on resources makes it tempting to DIY therapy, but it is a lot harder than it looks. Verbal communication is a complex, multi-step process. Your child’s senses, motor skills, emotional skills, social skills, cognitive skills, and language skills all collaborate to create meaning. Different parts of the brain and body are working together at the same time.
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How to avoid our mistakes if you suspect your child has speech delay
With speech delays, the child could be struggling with one step or a combination of steps. You need to have a lot of background knowledge to read subtle cues and figure out where the developmental issue lies and what activities will help.
Thankfully, we met skilled professionals who took our daughter out of her silence and helped her find her words. (I am eternally grateful for their patience, perseverance, and commitment to her welfare.) They taught us how to help her practice at home so that she made gains faster. Month by month, year by year, she improved, and these days, she reads novels and enjoys debates with her brother about the plotlines of her favorite movies and anime.
If you are facing speech delays, here a few things that I highly recommend you try.
If therapy is recommended and you can afford it, please get started as soon as you can
Please do not make the same mistake we did. If you cannot afford therapy, your local government hospital or DepEd office should be able to direct you to free services that they offer.
Play with your child
Play is how children naturally learn; it also helps them strengthen their bond with you and its fun. When learning is fun, it encourages the child to persevere. It’s hard to learn anything when you are stressed.
Your child is trying to match speech sounds to objects. The fewer sounds they have to sort through, the easier it is to make the connection. For example, say you are holding a ball. Compare saying one-word “ball” to “Look at this ball.” If you use one word, there is a better chance that your child will connect that word to the object you are holding.
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Add in gestures
Let’s say you travel to a foreign country and want to order at a restaurant. You might sign the number “1” with your finger and point to the item you wish to on the menu. The waiter will understand you are ordering one of that dish, even if you are not speaking the same language. In the same manner, using simple words with lots of gesturing will help your child understand what you mean faster.
Try talking like a “children’s show host”
Describe what you are doing to your child using simple language. If you are playing with cars, “Look! Car! Go Car! Whoops, traffic! Car stopped.” Emphasize useful words that label things in their environment. This approach is especially helpful during daily routines, like taking a bath and getting dressed. It will help your child learn the names of things they use every day.
Pause and count to 10 after each sentence or phrase you make and wait. Even just a look or a gesture from your child that shows interest can count as a response. This teaches your child that we take turns in conversation. They may also need more time to put their thoughts into words.
Developmental delays are heartbreaking and stressful for parents. You want to help, but it’s awkward to try when you don’t know where to start. It can be disheartening because it takes time to see results or signs of understanding. Even when you put your all into the process, there are no guarantees.
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If I have learned anything from our journey, it is this: start somewhere. Even if you start late, trying is better than doing nothing. Our story is proof of this. We made a lot of mistakes along the way, some of them very big. But if you take small steps forward every day, with time, you will have traveled far enough to make a difference for your child.
Thalia Valerio is the founder of All Minds, an online resource center for parents of children with developmental disabilities. Get 40% off on her “Building Connections” program, a three-week online class designed to provide guidance for parents facing speech and language delays. Register with the discount code “SMART40” before July 12, 2019. Visit all-minds.com for more information.