Thursday, January 20, 2011

O is for Oxygen

O is for Oxygen


Oh, why the hell not?

It is the most abundant element in our world's crust, makes up about 20% of the earth's atmosphere, is the useful part of the air we breathe, suffusing our very cells, the source of their energy.

But do we ever think much about it?  No, it's just there, all around us. Unless of course, it's not. And then, well, we're in trouble, unless that gets fixed, and fast.

Kind of like language. Being human, we use it all the time, every day.  We think in it, but don't think about it much.  Unless, of course, it's not working; not developing right from the start or slipping away, disappearing, suddenly due to trauma or slowly at the end of life

And then?  There is trouble.

I was an early talker, precocious, creating my first poem at two: "Mom, it's the moon in the afternoon!"  And my kids?  I expected them to be just like me.  Silly how first time parents are about that stuff, no?

When the boys weren't talking at a year I was frustrated, but everyone told me to chill my jets, that my expectations were unrealistic.  I was reminded that they were boys, they were twins, both reasons they would be a little later in their talking.

At fifteen months, I knew something was wrong, but once again, everyone pretty much patted me on the head and told me not to worry, all still well within the norm.

This was just a scant few years ago, before autism and speech delay were firmly embedded in the national psyche.  Before every pediatrician had a five point checklist of developmental milestones to go over at check-ups with big red flags for autism clearly spelled out.  When they were still things being whispered about in the dark corners of mommy and me classes.

When I asked for a referral to Early Intervention at a year, I was scorned; when I asked at fifteen months, I was dismissed again.  At eighteen months with neither Ethan nor Jake able to claim a stitch of functional language to their names, I finally got the go ahead to pull the parachute cord, stop my sons' developmental free-fall.

And the funny thing?  In spite of both having no language?  It was for completely different reasons.

Jacob had no language, but he did have occasional words,  You would say a word to him and he would repeat it, clear as a bell, right back to you, but then it would disappear, never to be heard again.  There were all the mechanics of speech in place but no communicative intent. And without that?  Speech does not become language.

Ethan, on the other hand, had a ton of communicative intent, but was having trouble with the mechanics of speech, wrapping his mouth around the words.  And boy, was he frustrated.  His tantrums at a year and a half, engendered by the frustration of being unable to let his thoughts be known?  Awe inspiring.  And heartbreaking.

We taught him a few signs and he worked them furiously, useful ones like "more" and "enough."  He took to the speech therapy offered by Early Intervention like a duck to water, slowly learned how to talk to us.

By two Ethan had a few words, but they were not easy to understand.  He had initial consonants only, and then it was all vowel soup.  I had to translate, was the only one who knew that “coh-ee” was a crayon, while “coo-ee” was a cookie. 

And then?  At two and a half, nearly on the dot, he had a language explosion and we never looked back.  Ethan is now a "high verbal" kid; a conversationalist with a huge, sometimes surprising vocabulary.

Jacob, on the other hand, was clearly another story.  It was slow going. We figured out there was a lot more than speech delay going on there.  Eventually he got a diagnosis, and the therapies he needed, including ABA, to begin his march up the language ladder.  It was a struggle.  I had to put on my autism-mom-cast-iron-underwear, my mommypants, and scrap, scrape and fight to get all of his necessary services and therapy hours.

There is too much story here to tell in this one post, but this small part I will...

Most people don't realize that speech and language are not the same thing, that words can be used to label and to communicate, and that one will not necessarily evolve into the other, unless a vital connection is made. That spark that is communicative intent.

At nearly two and a half Jacob had words, could label like a champ.  Show him a cup, he said "cup," turn on the faucet and he quickly came up with "water."  But when thirsty?  Jacob would just cry and cry.

Because the switch had not yet been thrown in his brain; the one that let him know that these fun labeling things, these words?  They had a purpose; could be used to communicate his thoughts, his needs, and most importantly, to get those needs met.

And then, the switch got tripped.

The day Jacob made his first request, I think it was "Up?" when he wanted to be picked up, was one of the happiest days of my life.

I think I had been holding my breath, at that point, for nearly two years.  And finally, that day, I was able to exhale, inhale again.  Bring some fresh oxygen, that stuff of life, into my brain; know that Jake would, could, eventually, enter the world of language, and be alright.

This post has been inspired by and linked up to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday writing meme. And isn't "O" such a lovely round letter this week?

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