One of the inevitable things you do when you have another child after one who’s diagnosed as autistic is frequently compare the development of the two. You try not to – or at least not overdo it – because you want each of them to be their own person. I think we do a decent enough job in our house of letting the J-Man and Dale Jr. be on their own timetable for things and not see one as developing ‘better’ than the other.
One of the areas the J-Man has struggled the most with is communication in pretty much every form. While we’ve gained solid ground in areas like picture communication, verbal communication is ground gained inch by inch. We have no doubt that an endless reservoir of insights, wisdom, and thoughts live within him just looking for a way to be expressed. You can even see it when he says, “I want” and then pauses, gets a very intense look on his face, and clearly tries to work out how to communicate what it is he wants. But he often doesn’t have a word for it yet, and to say that’s emotionally difficult on all of us is a huge understatement.
As we’ve said repeatedly in the past, we probably wouldn’t know ‘typical’ development if it jumped up and bit us. With Dale Jr., we’ve rarely worried about it. If there could be two more polar opposite children in a family, I haven’t met them yet. It’s really a brilliant gift to receive as parents because you know you get two wonderfully unique little people out of the deal. Much of the time we only wonder “do children normally do this at this age?” when Dale Jr. does something new that boggles our minds.
I guess it’s that we’re so used to having to really parse and analyze and guess about every verbal and non-verbal cue that when Dale Jr. just comes up to us and asks for something, it often startles us. I sometimes wonder if we’ve gotten so good at interpreting word approximations that so much of what he’s saying makes sense to us, but regardless, the way he uses language to ask for things and identify objects and people is really quite amazing for a child who just turned 15 months. He even uses the J-Man’s food picture board to ask for toast!
We learned way back when that the order in which the J-Man has developed individual sounds (phonemes) was largely ‘backwards’ from the textbook sequence kids on average go in. Normally ‘b’ and ‘m’ – and similar sounds – come early. It took a while for the J-Man to get ‘m’ and to this day he still doesn’t do ‘b’ or ‘p’ sounds. He does this guttural sound for those instead, which we know is his way of doing a ‘b’ or a ‘p’.
For example, if we’re in the living room and he says, “I want” followed by two of these guttural sounds together we know he means “I want pillows.” (i.e., “I want you to lie down next to me on the pillows because I need to regroup.”) What fascinated a lot of people is that his first consistent sound was ‘k’, which is one of the late ones on the development chart. For a while well into his third year, everything on earth was ‘kuh-kuh’.
Dale Jr. picked up ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘m’ and a host of others very quickly starting several months ago. We did get to wondering whether he is following the ‘normal’ pattern and order of speech and phoneme development that the J-Man has largely done in reverse, with the J-Man moving from very advanced sounds back toward the basics.
Just for giggles, I did a little digging around for benchmark kinds of resources for what sounds theoretically could show up and when. If you want something that reads like a specifications manual for your child, skim through “Neurological and developmental foundations of speech acquisition” by Sharynne McLeod, PhD and Ken Bleile, PhD. The information geek in me was appropriately geeked out by this, though a big part of me was like, “Just let him be a kid, sheesh,” but I wasn’t the intended audience I’m sure.
Found another, much simpler, resource from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. You’ll see “How do I know if my child is reaching the milestones?” and a set of interactive checklists to choose from below that. Click any of them and a new window/tab will appear that asks you some simple questions to give you an idea of whether your child is struggling in particular areas. If you have any concerns about your child’s speech and communication, this looks like a good place to start.
One last site I found was speech-language-therapy dot com, and it’s one you can really browse through for a long time and find a variety of good stuff to read. Some highlights include a semi-technical “Typical Speech Development”, the “Freebies” resource section, and some free “Phonology & Articulation Resources” that offer some worksheets and exercises that might work for your child depending on where they are on their verbal communication.
Back to our kids, another difference between them is the ‘syllable back-and-forth’ method – still haven’t come up with a good term for it – we’ve used for a long time with the J-Man to get up to our own version of full sentences. The following is a typical sentence exchange. Note that all the sounds come in pairs. The first in the pair is him talking; the second is Mary or me.
“I / I / wuuuuah / want / nuh / nuh / geh / gets.” (Translation: “I want [chicken] nuggets.”) Discovering that this worked was a revelation a couple of years ago. We worked up to a couple handfuls of basic sentences doing it this way, though all pretty much begin with “I want” or “I need”, but hey, that covers a lot of ground. We keep hoping to find any other parents who’ve experienced this with their child.
Dale Jr. has in recent weeks started to take the next step and put different syllables together without having to go back and forth like this. (note that ‘mama’ doesn’t count because it’s the same syllable twice) The most impressive one of recent days is ‘apple’, which he says plain as day (‘aaah-pulll’!) when looking at a bowl of applesauce that he wants. He’s developed a great repertoire of very useful words for things he wants or just wants to identify around the house. In the last couple of days, he’s made clear requests for ‘TV’, which as they say may be the beginning of the end. It is amusing also that he’s picked up a few of the J-Man’s speech cadences.
I want to make sure I make something clear here, and if you take nothing else away from this post at least remember this: Verbal communication or the lack of it is not an indicator of whether someone is more or less intelligent than someone else. Do not assume that because a child or an adult cannot talk or talk much that they are not intelligent. If autism had commandments, this should be one of them.
What’s been really awesome lately are the times where Dale Jr. tries to engage the J-Man in play and they start interacting. They love playing chase together, even if that usually means Dale Jr. coming at him full gas and the J-Man running for his life, though they’re both laughing hysterically the whole time. As much as Dale Jr. is soaking up words from us and the J-Man too, it seems to us that the J-Man is starting to pick up some things from Dale Jr. I don’t get a sense that he sees it as a competition of ability. The J-Man’s sibling competitiveness is much more about not wanting to share Mama and Daddy, but that’s a post for another day.
For the most part, our two kids really do bring out great things in each other. We hope it turns into continued speech improvement for both of them. But most of all, we just hope Mary and I and the boys all realize what a gift they are to each other and to us. And we’ll keep working on the rest.