How To Talk About Not Talking

I wrote in December about Little T and his language delay. Since then there have been some big changes – he started going to nursery two mornings a week and seeing a speech therapist on a regular basis. He’s had no problems settling at nursery and his therapist is amazing (I can only admire a woman who walks into my home, takes one glance at me with my hair unwashed and snot pouring from my face and says without hesitation, “You look awful.” My kind of person tbh).

One crucial thing hasn’t changed though; he still doesn’t really talk. I mean, there’s been some improvement and it’s been awesome to see, but with every month that passes the developmental gap between him and his peers grows and grows. And since he turned 3 he’s passed through an invisible threshold and is now considered to have special educational needs (SEN). In some ways that’s been a positive thing for us because we don’t feel so much like he needs to magically up his game in time to avoid the SEN label (why that was a worry for us I have no idea), but in others… Well, labels. And “advice”. SO MUCH ADVICE.

So on that note, here’s my (very personal) guide of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ when it comes to my non-speaking child –

  1. Don’t say “Have you tried reading to him?” (or “You could use flash cards!”or “Just don’t give him what he wants until he asks properly!” etc) Honestly, I’m not a horrible person. I know that when you say this you’re trying to offer help and support and you have no idea how so you just come out with the most benign suggestion you can muster. I really do understand the mindset of wanting to offer solutions, believe me I do. But these aren’t solutions. At best they’re conversational filler, at worst they’re downright hurtful. And given that he has a speech therapist, it’s likely we’re already exploring different approaches. And for the record, we’ve been explicitly instructed never to withhold things from him until he asks. So suck on that.
  2.  Do listen. The uncertainty, doubt, guilt and worry is hard work, especially alongside the day-to-day drudgery and stress of maintaining a marriage, parenting two kids, paying bills and stopping the house falling down, so it’s sometimes nice to be able to say, “This is shit,” to a trusted friend or family member and have them pat me on the head and feed me cake without trying to fix my son or change my feelings. I love my beautiful boy with all my heart and I have 100% got this, but it’s not always easy and it’s great to let my guard down around the people I care about.
  3. Don’t tell me he could be autistic. I’ve got news for you – I know! It’s a very real possibility and not one we’re frightened of. But at this point in time we’re not pursuing an assessment for him. Just because my son has delayed speech it doesn’t mean he owes the world anything. He doesn’t owe the world an answer, and that would be the only reason for us to seek a diagnosis. And yes, the answer could be that he’s autistic. But it could also not. We may find out definitively one day, but while he’s happy and there are no other “problems” with his development we want him to enjoy being a young child with as little scrutiny as possible. That’s our choice and it’s the right one for him. Remember, we’ve got this! 🙂
  4. Do speak to him. His hearing is fine, and while he often doesn’t appear to be listening, I promise he is. And it’s okay to ask him questions, just don’t expect an (obvious) answer then let the “conversation” dry up because you don’t know where to go next. Observe him, talk about what he’s doing, engage in his play. With a child like Tristan you need to get inside his world. Sit on the floor with him, pick up a toy, connect with the child inside yourself and go on wonderful imaginative adventures with my son. He may not talk but he isn’t quiet and his universe is bright, bold and colourful. I promise you it’s worth finding it.
  5. Don’t assume he’s unintelligent. No he doesn’t talk much yet, but try to remember that in all other ways he’s just like any other 3 year old. He loves Pixar movies, being outside, climbing things, small world play and splashing in puddles. He found a ladybird at nursery a few weeks ago and proudly showed everyone. He’s learning to share. He has tantrums. He likes chicken nuggets and chocolate. He loves novelty and trying new things. I don’t really know how smart he is, but it doesn’t matter! Don’t make assumptions either way. Just enjoy him and take him as he is.
  6. Do ask questions. After everything I’ve written above it might seem like it’s a bit of minefield and it’s best to keep quiet and ignore the speech delayed elephant in the room but that elephant is my son and perhaps surprisingly, his development isn’t something I’m ashamed of. I love talking about my kids, and nothing makes me love a person more than when they embrace the subject of T’s speech and ask about it meaningfully and rationally. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask about his hearing or what our plans for his education are should his communication not change much by the time he reaches compulsory school age. Ask away. Just don’t be a dick (see #1).
  7. Don’t tell me about Susan’s nephew’s goddaughter who didn’t speak til she was 5. Truthbomb time – I don’t care. And I know about Einstein. And Mark Rylance. It’s not that these examples don’t make me feel better in the moment – they do. But I want to let go of the need for Tristan to meet certain expectations of ‘normal’. He didn’t meet the goal of talking by 3 so now people try to helpfully move the goalposts for him. Einstein means he has til he’s 4! Mark Rylance didn’t talk until he was 6! The point is that I don’t want goalposts for Tristan at all. What happens if he reaches 5 years old and still isn’t talking, what then? Will he have failed at normality? Why does it even matter? That’s what I’m trying to let go of. He probably will talk one day and catch up with peers, but he may not. Changing goalposts isn’t helping to embrace him as he is now or as he could possibly be in the future, it’s just another arbitrary mark to potentially miss.
  8. Do tell us we’re doing a good job. Okay, so this is more than a little vain, but as I said above this isn’t always an easy journey. I have blamed myself most days for not doing enough to help my son communicate, resented Leo because he gets in the way of me interacting with Tristan, and sometimes had to make do with five minutes of reading at bedtime as quality time with my eldest. It’s crap and I beat myself up for it every day. So if you have a compliment spare, send it my way. My mummy guilt needs it.

There you have it. In short, love me and my son, and don’t be an arsehole. 🙂

When You Speak

My darling boy,

In a few weeks it will be three years since I first saw your scrunched up face and your serious eyes. Three years since you grasped my heart in your tight little fist and changed it forever. We’ve been through so much together already, it’s hard to believe you’re only three years old. How have you not been here always?

You amaze me daily. You are so kind and quirky, imaginative and playful. When I’m sad you always come to me and gently stroke my arm until I look up and smile. You are cuddly and sweet. You love pesto and play-doh – you’ve been known to eat and play with both. Your favourite film is Monsters University, your favourite book is your pop-up version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and your favourite place is the woods, or maybe the pond with all the ducks and pigeons. You still wake most nights but your face lights up when you see us next to you in the morning and it makes the disrupted nights completely worth it. You are headstrong, stubborn and frustrating; you do things your own way, but you rarely tantrum. I’ve seen you hurt and angry but able to pick yourself up and move on happily. You eat grapes by the tonne. Your best friend is the cat and thankfully it’s more than mutual. You are adaptable, excited about everything, gentle and rambunctious in equal measure. You are every season rolled into one.

But I don’t know what your favourite colour is, whether it’s constant or changes every day. I don’t know what you dream about. I don’t know whether you know you’re starting nursery next month, even though I’ve tried to talk to you about it. I don’t know what adventures your toys are on when they’re jumping round on the table and diving off the sofa. I don’t know where you want to go on your birthday. I sometimes don’t know what you want when you whine and look up at me pleadingly.

You have a speech delay and there is so much I don’t know.

I don’t know why you don’t really talk. I don’t know if it’s something we have or haven’t done (you’ve certainly had less one-on-one time with us since Leo arrived). I don’t know if you have a developmental disorder, or a hearing problem. I don’t know if you’re just taking your time and you’ll suddenly start speaking in full, grammatically correct sentences and reading the Financial Times over breakfast.

But the whys don’t really matter. I don’t want you to be anyone other than who you are, and who you are right now doesn’t talk. I want you to know that’s okay.

I just wish I knew whether the decisions I’m making are the right ones for you. I wish you could communicate to me somehow that, yes Mummy, keep going, this is what I need.

Because I’m clueless.

And yes, I wish I could hear you tell me you love me. Heck, I’d settle for you saying my name more often. And I admit I’m jealous of all those parents of children the same age as you sharing their stories of the latest funny thing their little one said.

But please understand I’m not jealous because I’m disappointed in you, or in any way ashamed. You are perfect to me. I would never ever change you, not for anything in the world.

I’m jealous because of all those I don’t knows. I want to hear your thoughts because I want to know you better and drink in all of you before time changes you, as it’s meant to do.

Like how sometimes you hug Toru and squeeze too hard because you want to love as much of him as you can, but then he swishes his tail and jumps up so you can’t reach him anymore? You feel sad that he moves away but you’re not angry with him, you just want to keep loving him, don’t you? Mummy feels a bit like that when you don’t talk.

But it’s really okay. You can keep swishing your tail as much as you want, my sweet boy. Keep on being you, keep on conquering the world, keep on laughing at random dogs in the park, keep on dancing to the music you sing to yourself, keep on shining with that beautiful smile of yours. You are doing just fine.

And I promise you that when you speak, I will listen.

tristanmyheart