Red lights when you’re running late. Picking the slow check-out lane at the grocery store. Insomnia. Seeing red splatters decorate the wall after the spaghetti sauce somehow flies out of your grasp. Dealing with in-laws that are staying for three weeks. Listening to the new upstairs neighbors stomp back and forth across your ceiling.
As frustrating as those events may be, none of them reach the level of frustration involved with trying to understand a pre-verbal toddler.
Sam’s wailing cry is implausibly both guttural and piercing. It means that he is unhappy or uncomfortable. Or he is hungry or thirsty. Or he wants to play. OK, I admit I really have no idea what it means. Oh wait, I do have some idea; it means that my head is going to start hurting. Not that that helps.
Sam is 16 months old, and doesn’t say one recognizable word. If only I knew what his little crying heart desired, I would most gladly offer it to him, silver platter and all. Our saving grace is that Sam is overall a very content little boy. But when he lets loose with a demanding howl I wish so much that he could tell me what he wanted. As frustrating as this is for me, I can only imagine it is even more so for my Sam.
It’s not as simple as teaching Sam a few signs. See, not only does Sam not speak yet, but he also shows no (or very little) sign of comprehending anything I say. Some kids are late talkers, and that’s usually A-OK, because you can see that they understand everything that is said to them. Babies begin to build their receptive language vocabulary first. After developing their receptive language comprehension, they’ll eventually start speaking. My son, however, never responded to simple directions such as “Give me the ball.” And he wouldn’t turn towards me or Jack when we would ask “Where’s Mommy?” or “Where’s Daddy?” Sam seems to have gotten stuck somewhere on the path to language comprehension.
It has been, at times, so frustrating to decipher his grunts and yells and to feel that sense of emptiness where there should be comprehension. But even worse is the creeping fear that something is wrong.
So I’ve grown more and more anxious about his lack of language. I almost never mention it to anyone. I spoke about it to my sister once. She quickly replied with assurances that Sam was fine, all kids are different, Sam is so smart, don’t worry. I’ve always found that uninformed knee-jerk assurances are utterly useless and insulting to my intelligence. Worse, it’s like a quick dismissal of my feelings and concerns. I haven’t spoken to her about it since. I was anxious and worried, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.
My husband believed, or wanted to believe, that Sam was understanding everything we were saying. I knew better. Jack argued that Sam would respond with happiness when my husband would propose their various fun activities, like running or swimming. I pointed out that Sam always responded with happiness whenever Jack would speak with a happy tone. That wasn’t clear evidence of comprehension.
Then we had Sam’s 15-month check-up with his pediatrician. He agreed that it sounded like Sam may have a language delay. And no, I didn’t really want to be right, but finally, I felt like my concerns were acknowledged and validated. Our next step is to set up an appointment to have a speech evaluation done.
The creeping fear didn’t have a concrete shape, but the scary A-word was almost certainly driving it. Autism is a huge terrifying monster for most new parents. It definitely was weighing on my mind as I waited to hear “Mama.” I don’t pretend to know a lot about autism. I know that language problems are one aspect, so understandably this was a root source of my anxiety. But as our pediatrician explained to us, social problems are far more indicative of autism than are language delays. My sweet Sam, I am happy to tell you, has great social skills.
Sam is my Snuggle Monster. He is very affectionate with both me and Jack. He makes eye contact and smiles and laughs easily when we’re being silly. He plays peekaboo. He also has his own version of peekaboo that he made up. While in his highchair, he covers his eyes with his hands. I say “Where’s Sammy?” until he peeks out from behind his tiny fingers with a twinkle in his eye. Of course I call out “There’s Sammy!” and he giggles and hides behind his hands again. It’s adorable.
While we were sitting in the doctor’s room, the pediatrician observed Sam giving Jack hugs and kisses, unprompted by us. A good sign, he said. Also, Sam carefully watched the doctor throughout the appointment, which the doctor said was very much expected behavior for his age. He said that an autistic child would more likely be gazing towards the corners and not paying attention to the stranger in the room. That half hour with the pediatrician did a lot to allay my fears.
In the past two weeks since then, I’ve had the joy of seeing some progress. It would look insignificant to the casual observer, but it feels momentous to me. Being careful not to look in the direction of the ball, I said to Sam “Get the BALL! Can you get the BALL? Where’s the BALL? Get the BALL Sam!” Where’s the B-B-B-ALL?” Four out of six times, Sam has turned, crawled straight to the ball, and grabbed it and looked at me with a big smile! You know I was whooping and clapping with joy! Such a seemingly little gesture, but I was overwhelmed with happiness and relief. I call that clear evidence that Sam understood exactly what I said! In the past, when I have asked him to get the ball, he would sit and give me a blank expression. He wouldn’t even glance in the direction of the ball. Now 4 out of 6 times, he made a beeline for his ball. And as for the two times in which he did not move towards the ball… well, he’s one. One-year-olds don’t always listen. They get distracted by other toys. That’s what I’m telling myself.
I still need to call to set up the speech evaluation. Hopefully we can get some advice on how to help Sam build his language skills. Until then, I’m still waiting to hear my sweet boy call me “Mama.” I can’t wait!