Recently I complained that Max talks too much. I caught myself saying it twice, to two different people, in one week. Granted, James was away and I was really feeling the intensity of being the primary carer of all three kids, but what was I thinking?
Max is, in the nicest possible way, a chatterbox. Some days he will barely stop talking for hours at a time. It’s a charming mixture of questions, statements and analysis of the varying powers of superheroes.
Max was relatively slow to talk; he just said ‘oh no’ repeatedly for months and as he turned two the health visitor was a bit concerned about his lack of speech. I wasn’t worried. I had spent hours with speech and language therapists with Ben and so knew something of the basics of learning language. I could tell Max knew loads of words and understood what we told him. He made loads of sounds. I had a feeling he was just biding his time until he started talking.
At two-and-a-bit he started saying more words. Within a couple of weeks he was putting words together. And by the end of the month he had three-word sentences. It was like a miracle, like you could see his brain working and his body co-ordinating itself with an ease and fluidity that was beautiful to watch and hear.
Since Ben will probably never talk, I promised myself that I wouldn’t take it for granted. And I haven’t – there have been numerous occasions when we have been so very grateful for Max’s ability to tell us what the matter is when he’s ill or what happened at nursery that day.
Meanwhile there have been many times when we have been so very sad that Ben can’t tell us what the matter is, or what he has done that day. We find ways round it by school telling us each day what he has done, and recording messages on a button that goes to and fro with him, but it’s no substitute for independent communication and it’s a clunky way to converse.
We, and his school, are trying our best to give Ben the means to ‘talk’. We continue to model his PODD book with him (a communication book with lots of symbols to represent vocab), and give him access to his eyegaze computer regularly. When he returned to school after Easter, his carer/nanny printed out photos for him to take to school of all the things he had done over the holiday. I programmed new pages on his computer so he could use his eyes to describe what he had been up to (with photos) for his friends and teachers. (SO proud of myself for managing to navigate the software to do this, with only a couple of exasperating moments when I felt like chucking the computer out the window).
Ben loved all of it – he enjoyed showing people photos of Max squashing him in the park, and telling them about our easter egg hunt.
But these things are manipulated by us. We choose which photos to include and which anecdotes to tell. Ben can’t tell people what HE wants to about his holiday he can only share one of the moments we chose to include. Who knows whether we have included the bits he most enjoyed? Yesterday we were talking about when we all visited an outdoor exhibition of massive light sculptures and Max’s best, most important memory was of the Smarties Grandpa gave him, rather than any of the sculptures. Kids experience the world differently to adults, and often remember the bits we think are incidental.
Or we (adults) don’t realise what kids want to do. When Max is climbing a tree, Ben will make complaining noises until we ask him if he wants to climb the tree? He then looks at the ‘Yes’ symbol on the arm of his wheelchair, and so we take him out and lift him up into the branches. A year ago he wouldn’t have been able to communicate this clearly something we hadn’t thought of. Or perhaps we weren’t able to interpret what he was trying to tell us.
We continue to hope we can give Ben the means to express what HE wants to say, rather than what we think he wants to say, and he is making progress with the ways he has available.
Each week at school Ben helps create a sentence and they work on the sentence each day, putting the words in the right order. On one of the first days back at school this term, staff in Ben’s classroom navigated him to the Places page of his PODD book. He had to choose the place to complete the sentence ‘I went to the …’ and through careful yes/no answers as he worked his way through the various symbols with an assistant he chose Library: I went to the library.*
School wondered if he really meant library. We hadn’t mentioned going to the library in our various messages to school. Maybe he was confused, or hadn’t really meant library. After all, his communication can be hard to interpret.
But HE HAD GONE TO THE LIBRARY. The day before! So he had told his class something we hadn’t!
Before Max started talking it was all in his head, he just had to work out how to say it all so we would understand. Ben clearly has so much to say, but no reliable way to say it. In some ways this makes me sad. In many ways it makes me anxious – it is our job (with various professionals) to help him find ways to talk to us and I feel the weight of the responsibility.
But mainly I feel hopeful. Ben has started to use the communication systems we are providing and has begun to talk independently. It will take time, but he’s making progress. He went to the library!
How we learn to talk – part one is here
* Note how many symbols there are on this page, which is one of many in the PODD book. Imagine the skill needed to identify which symbol you want on that page and then communicate it to the person you are talking to using only your eyes. Imagine if you got distracted or confused midway through and needed to start again.