Talk To Me: Helping Our Little One Learn to Communicate

“Uuuuuuuuuur Ahhhhrrrrr Uhrrrr Ahhhhhrrrrr Aaaaarhg…”

– Chewbacca

After taking T to the potty recently, he pulls up his underwear and blurts out matter of factly, “Oh my God, look at his butt. It is so big!” I shouldn’t have laughed, but I did. I’m not sure where he picked this up. Maybe it was from a song lyric. He better not have been talking about me!

To think that three years ago, we were anxious about whether or not this kid would talk. These days, he talks in sentences, has a growing vocabulary, a descriptive imagination, and unfortunately, he’s also picked up a potty mouth from school (more on this in another post!).

When we first adopted T, his medical history stated that he had “global delays” at birth. After we received his prognosis of at-risk FASD, we obsessed over it and read up as much as we could about it. One symptom common among FASD children is a delay with speech and language development.

We knew from our assessment with the developmental pediatrician that T was supposed to be able to say more words than he was doing so at his developmental age. That didn’t help our anxiety.

I was on parental leave for the first 30 weeks that T was with us and his speech was one of the areas my hubby and I focused on. Due to T’s prognosis, we were blessed with access to developmental and speech therapy services from Surrey Place. Looking back, these services taught us so much about how to help T develop speech and language skills.

Today, while T has a few challenges he struggles with and that we are working through, speech is not one of them. And we acknowledge this is a blessing that not all children have and we know that T will have – and is already experiencing – learning challenges at school.

While my hubby and I are by no means experts on this subject, we are sharing the important lessons about children and communication that we’ve learned from T:

Playing is the Best Way to Learn

I always looked so forward to the bi-weekly visits from T’s developmental therapist A and speech pathologist C. I had no idea what to expect in these sessions and it ended up being all about play.

They brought an array of toys that encouraged turn taking, choice making, and vocabulary building – such as wooden puzzles, stacking blocks, shape sorters, and bubbles. They even gifted T toys they thought were appropriate and helpful to encourage language and play skills development.

A and C taught T – and my hubby and I – how to encourage the development of speech and language skills through play and to inject language and vocabulary in everyday activities. One simple way was to describe and identify what we were doing and the related objects within the current context.

When T was having fun, he became most receptive to learning. When he got tired of an activity, we moved onto another one. Mundane activities – like going for a walk, to play in the park, snack and bath time – became an opportunity to have fun and to teach and to learn language.

Start with Non-Verbal Communication

We learned that receptive language is the ability to understand words and language and expressive language is the ability to use language through speech or other means, like sign language.

While T was not talking yet, he was absorbing, learning and growing his understanding of the world around him. That was why it was important to talk to him, describe things to him, read to him, sing to him, and to play with him.

We learned about the importance of non-verbal communication – such as a making eye contact with others, learning how to finger point, and simple sign language – as a way to build his language skills.

For example, when we asked T to make a choice – e.g. “Red socks or blue socks?” – we’d first get him to make eye contact. Eventually, T learned to point at his choice. “Green socks,” we’d say back to him.

Another simple sign language skill was teaching him how to gesture “More please” with his hands when he wanted more food. When he gestured, we’d repeat out loud to him, “More please,” until he one day learned to say “More please” by himself.

Attend Community Programs

Community programs for preschool children help immerse kids in fun and play-based learning environments rich with language. Even better, they are often free and a great way to connect with other families and help remedy the boredom of being alone with a non-communicative kid.

Some of my most treasured memories from my parental leave was taking T to attend toddler programs, which included family programs offered at our local library and early literacy programs offered at “Early Years Centres” (pictured above) through the municipal government.

Surrey Place offered a wonderful Musical Morning program on Thursdays that I attended in Fall 2016. There were a dozen parent and tot pairs who attended regularly. The other children had down syndrome. This drop-in program ran for two hours and we attended the last hour. It consisted of play time and 30 minutes of guitar songs played by a musical therapy student.

Although T had a hard time sitting still for anything, he enjoyed the music program a lot and would often go up to the student to touch and poke at her guitar.

I have a picture of T from one of the mornings. The group was playing with a rainbow parachute. T was sitting on the mat and looking up mesmerized at the parachute as it ballooned in the air above him. My feelings of gratitude for those mornings always come back to me when I look at that picture.

Read, Sing, and Laugh Often

Reading and singing became a ritual before bedtime and provided enjoyable opportunities to infuse language into T’s environment.

A and C bought T a series of wonderful baby board books, including the First 100 Words by Roger Piddy and Baby Genius word books. As I work for a library, I am surrounded by books. Our family and friends also regularly gift T with awesome books for his personal library.

One of my favourite memories from when T was younger was when we’d spend time every day going through his First 100 Word books. There were 9 images and words per page. I’d ask T to point at specific objects. I remember that jubilant feeling the very first time he pointed out correctly all the words on the page. And the first time when I pointed to an image and T would utter out what the object was – like “ball,” “cat” and “dog.” It was like he had won an Olympics medal.

My hubby introduced lullabies into T’s bedtime routine. After reading books one night, A picked T up and started singing to him as he cradled his then-so-tiny body. In the early days, we sang the same three songs in this order: “Frere Jacques,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Rock A Bye Baby.” Eventually, we diversified our setlist. Favourite songs included, “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Row Row Row Your Boat,” Skinamarink,” and “Wheels on the Bus.” As we became more confident, we added dance movements.

We’ve now graduated from board books into longer picture books and T is not as interested in lullabies. And there are evenings when I’m exhausted and the thought of reading the lengthy Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss make me want to poke my eyes out. I actually had to hide the Dr Seuss books at one point, because I found them so annoying to read. But books and songs at bedtime were so important to helping T build his vocabulary.

Celebrate Every Victory

I remember the early days of speech therapy, whether it was one of the bi-weekly home visits or half-year checkups at Surrey Place. We’d do an inventory of how many words T knew, whether it was reported by me or through an observation during the session.

I remember the early days when we celebrated his ability to point his finger as an intentional way to communicate and how that gradually transitioned into him uttering “Yat?” as a way to ask “What’s that?” to the day he actually uttered “What’s that?”

Or when he would make incoherent sounds and we’d still jot it down as a word in his vocabulary. Because those sounds eventually became coherent words.

Every sound, coherent or incoherent, was celebrated. I think, and would like to think, that he knew how happy and proud and excited we were at his growing vocabulary.

And soon, we stopped counting how many words he knew, or counted the number of words he was able to string into a sentence. It just became a natural part of T’s skills and abilities.

When I think about the daily struggles we have about other aspects of T’s development and this prognosis that looms over us like a dark stinking cloud, we try to shift our thinking to the gains he’s made in other areas of his life – such as speech – and it gives us renewed optimism to step forward with confidence and reassurance that things will be ok.

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