Many moons ago I took an acting class for fun. It wasn’t. I am not meant for the stage, but something the teacher said stuck with me. He told us, “If you want to look like you are truly upset about something when you are not, for instance if your character’s dog dies or your husband just left, then you need to have a very difficult math problem written out ahead of time and at that very moment visualize it in your mind and try to solve it. The look on your face will be as if you are momentarily taken away. While you try to solve the problem, it will mimic our look of shock and sadness when we hear bad news and need time to process it.”
What I took from the lesson: if I stand there trying to solve something that is difficult for me, then you will think I am not paying attention, I am in shock, and I am very sad. I think my children must do a lot of tricky math in their heads… because our dog is still very much alive and I have seen this look many times.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about developmental speech delays. I am a developmentally delayed speech survivor myself and I have three children with some form of speech or speech-related issues. My oldest is on the Autism spectrum but he started talking very young. He had an advanced vocabulary and his speech issues seemed to be his inability to STOP talking- think running dialogues with himself during class. Sigh. (we are parents, hear us roar… silently, please, and with a glass of wine). Anyway, since he was such an advanced talker, I was surprised to learn he had a rather sever processing discrepancy and he compensates verbally for that discrepancy. In school he was identified as average for years and it wasn’t until he was eleven that he was tested and identified as highly gifted and twice-exceptional.
My middle child was the opposite: she couldn’t speak at all. When she was identified as highly gifted, I was not surprised, but what I know about her is that she can’t answer a question for fear of failure. Speaking, for her, is the most humiliating, agonizing, and astonishingly hard thing to do. She did require some speech therapy, but mainly it was to get her to stop delaying her speech on her own. My youngest was identified as profoundly gifted and has a severe developmental speech delay. Her delay is physiological and was based on a deformity which we had surgically corrected at two years old. She has yet to catch up all the way with regards to speech.
I suppose you could say speech delays in this house are atopic. It felt like the next place to go.
If you have a child with any form of developmental speech delays and a precocious mind, you have experienced firsthand how difficult it is for children to meld their vocabulary and comprehension, and their conversation skills and grammar, into their early educational years. It’s precisely during this time, while traversing the difficult path of social and emotional growth, that they require full use of their interpersonal skills. This is as true for peer-to-peer conversation as it is for student-to-teacher and student-to-parent dialogue. They must be able to relate to people at multiple levels for myriad reasons, two of which have crossed my mind today: identification of their educational needs and abilities and finding and maintaining relationships with peers.
Speech delays come in all shapes and sizes. The speech delay could be physiological or psychological, the child could be introverted and introspective by nature, the child’s inner dialogue could be so advanced that it has yet to catch up to his or her ability of expression, or perhaps the child has developed as an asynchronous learner; regardless, all of these could be viewed as a form of speech delay. The driving factor for the speech delay needs to be identified to rule out physiological concerns; but even if the speech delay is functional in nature, the result is the same for a child and parent dealing with both a speech delay and an advanced cognitive ability. If after identification of a speech delay the focus is only on the delay, the advanced child may suffer emotionally; likewise, if there is no consideration of the delay when constructing the educational plan for the cognitively advanced child, the child may suffer emotionally.
Applying the actor scenario to our children, you can see how difficult it would be for a teacher, administrator, and parent to identify the child’s needs and abilities. If every time the teacher asks the simplest of questions little Sarah is vacant, confused, lost, and sad, the teacher has limited options. If the parents just know there is more to Sarah and take her to be tested and she can’t answer the questions timely due to her focus on each and every question, the test may garner invalid results. If friends see Sarah’s hesitation and far-away look as she compiles her responses and prepares herself to speak as an indicator that she is not interested in being friendly, they may think that she is strange or they may simply be gone before she has had time to communicate her answer.
So what can we do? I think we need to allow our children to lead the charge with regards to their speech and allow them to express their needs and abilities in their own language. Parents and educators have to be ready for foreign data and they have to resist the urge to speak for them. We all know how annoying autocorrect can be- imagine how it feels to have your dialogue autocorrected by people around you. For the kids who can’t talk for any reason, who can talk but choose not to, or can’t express the enormity of their answer (or all the above), praise that inability. I can tell you I have seen firsthand how the praise of an inability creates a sense of empowerment. That empowerment leads to a different funnel from which flows the most amazing and surprising results!
Finally, love. Let’s end with love.
If you ask a child who he or she loves, the answer you would receive could be any number of loved ones in the child’s life: mom, dad, parents, siblings, friends, dog, cat, ice cream, bananas, monkeys, a book, a leaf, a momentary lapse in judgment, etc. There would not be a right or wrong answer. Suppose, however, you asked them who they love most. And suppose when they answer you emphasize most again, implying a right and wrong answer, “No, who do you love the MOST?” Well now, this takes much more thought, but you may still get an answer (or an argument or a stern look or a confused look or a math problem in my head look). Now suppose you hand the child a pencil and paper and say, “Show me how you came to that answer.” Sure, they might come up with a clever way to show it, so you might have to tell them to multiply that love by a million. Or multiply it by pancake or hippopotamus or tractor. It doesn’t matter because it can’t be expressed.
I think love as a concept describes everything it means to be gifted and have any sort of speech delay or speech-related issue. It is just one of many things the child wants to express but the enormity and the variables are just mind-blowing. The inability to share the answer can make or break a teacher and parent’s ability to identify and support a gifted child. It might seem like I’m comparing apples to oranges when I compare the concept of love with questions involving simple solutions, but remember that this is a child, a gifted child yes, but a child. They don’t do simple. They believe in answers and they believe that there could very well be an answer to apples plus oranges. For them it is very real. They are not acting out the death of a dog or the loss of a husband, they are just busy trying to solve life’s greatest mysteries every time you ask them a simple question and someday they just might be able to share their conclusions with the world in a voice which will astound you.
How is this at all practical advice, you ask? Well, it’s not. It’s not going to help your children relate to peers or help teachers identify your children more effectively. I just enjoy the nuance that surrounds this journey and think that stopping to enjoy the ride and being able to view the best outcome is a critical component to advocacy.
(It’s too loud in here…. Shhh…. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the beauty of silence).