Expressive Language, Receptive Language, and Prayer

Zach turned 10 over the weekend. It makes me wonder where the time has gone. And it also makes me think about where he is in his development.
Years ago I read several different autism stories where a non-verbal child started speaking around age 8. I used to hold out hope that we would have a similar story. But Zach’s 8th birthday came and went. And here we are 2 years later still waiting for that dramatic breakthrough.
Even though he’s still not talking, he is progressing. On his birthday Zach handed me one of his balloons and said, “Here.” At first I didn’t realize it but Jan did. When she pointed it out I had to think about it. Yes, it did sound like “here” and not just a random grunt.
Zach has let loose with a few words over the years. And this is always how it is. Out of the clear blue, totally unexpected, he will say a word. It catches you off guard and you have to think about whether you really heard what you think you heard. And, of course, he never repeats it to confirm your suspicions, no matter how much you cajole him.
Every once in a while I am treated to hearing “Daddy.” It may just be random vocalization since it usually comes out “duh-DEE.” But he has said it while looking at me so I count it. Although less frequently, he has also said “Mom” and “Ma-ma” on occasion.
While it is debatable if he is purposefully using these spoken words, there is no doubt he knows how to say “shoes off” in sign language. This sign has become his default whenever he is trying to communicate with us and we just aren’t getting it. He might be trying to tell us something he needs with his video player. He will get frustrated with our inability to understand and sign, “shoes off!”
Even though Zach’s expressive language has only improved slightly, his receptive language has surged forward. He understands very well what I am saying. For example, without any contextual clues such as me holding a towel or pointing to the bathroom, I can just say “Let’s take a bath,” and he will dutifully head toward the tub. Now this happens most of the time, mind you, not all the time. Sometimes he just continues to sit there ignoring what I said. Jan says at those times he is just being a man.
Zach’s development of receptive language has been huge for us! When he starts to wander away in the store we can call his name and he will turn and come back to us. When Jan tells him to pause his iPad as they walk through the parking lot he obeys. Zach is safer because he is able to hear his parents and appropriately respond.
And that is how it is with our heavenly Father. It is important for me to develop my expressive language, the prayers I offer up to God. I need to practice speaking to God, glorifying him, interceding for others, sharing my needs, seeking his guidance and asking his forgiveness.
But it is even more crucial that I improve my receptive language. I need to be able to hear my Father speaking through his Word. I need to discern his voice in the preachers and teachers he has called. I need to recognize his Spirit’s whisper in my heart.
Once I heard a preacher speak of a hypothetical situation. He said that if he could only practice one spiritual discipline and was forced to choose between praying and studying the Scriptures, he would choose the Scriptures. Because, he said, it is far more important for us to hear what God has to say than for God to hear what we want to say.
I’m thankful that Zach has his priorities straight.

Rooting for Failure

“Come on, Johnny!  You can do it!” Mom yelled from the stands.Image

“Just look for your pitch, son!”  Dad encouraged.

From little league to band and everything in between parents are cheering their children on to success.  But special needs parents have to root for failure.

I just read another assessment of my boys.  It is very depressing.  Every skill that they still have not mastered is highlighted.  Every area in which they do not meet the standard of other kids their age is noted.  Every behavioral oddity is described.

Few people could handle this type of scrutiny.  As a gymnastics coach I was taught that kids do best in an environment where there are at least 5 positive reinforcements for each negative critique.  I knew that my athletes needed continual encouragement to push them toward their potential and that they could really only work on improving one thing at a time.  So I would never recount to a gymnast every flaw in the skill she just performed.  I would always look for the positive aspects to praise and then focus her attention on the one improvement I wanted her to try to make in the next attempt.

But when your child has special needs there is no restraint from piling up the list of failures and criticisms.  And it has to be this way to get the help that is absolutely essential.

I heard of a boy who was responding very well to the therapies and accommodations his school had implemented for his disability.  Unfortunately, he did too well.  When his progress was assessed it was determined that he had advanced to a level where he no longer needed help.  His aid was removed and he immediately regressed in his functioning and his grades fell.

So parents have to root for failure.  We have to hope that our children bomb the tests so that they will be given the supports they need.  Otherwise, we are left on our own to try to overcome our child’s obstacles.

Speech vs. Language

Several different posts have been bouncing around in my head but I have not been able to write them out yet. By the way, that is exactly what we are talking about when we say someone with autism is having trouble processing-they are still working on formulating the response. While you wait for me to process, here’s something Mama Be Good posted on Facebook. She says,

Pressure starts early to get autistic children to produce speech. Because Jack was in Early Intervention, when he wasn’t speaking at two years old, he started speech therapy right away. Two years old is way young, so naturally, it backfired. For one, Jack was already communicating. When we demanded that he produce certain sounds and refused to recognize his own special language, he became very frustrated and would shut down – preventing the very communication we were supposed to encourage. Secondly, my child began focusing on labels instead of conversation. And finally, he realized that we wanted a speech-produced answer promptly and, even if he wasn’t finished processing, he would give an answer – any answer – true or not. Which is a problem when you want to know what your child’s really feeling.

Autistic children have their own developmental schedule. Emphasizing speech production at two years old, or three, or four isn’t fair to autistic children. The point of development isn’t the production of speech. The point is language – having back and forth conversations – whether those conversations are verbal, non-verbal, or their own language. So anything that engages in back-and-forth conversations is valid and should be encouraged. The production of speech – sounds from the mouth – should not be the primary concern. Conversations of all sorts are possible.

What’s a way to engage in back-and-forth conversations with non-verbal or verbal kids? Those games of connection we were talking about – yay! Dual-purpose fun! These games are perfect for language.

If you’re worried that you’re ignoring an important part of development by not working on speech, remember that focusing on language and conversation with your child IS part of therapy. The production of speech itself is not the primary concern – language is. And language is both verbal AND non-verbal. As parents, it’s hard not to get stuck in “how will I ever find out what my child really thinks?” Don’t worry. You will. When your child is ready on his own developmental schedule, he will communicate with you. Sometimes we just have to make sure we don’t get in the way by insisting on a certain KIND of communication.

Instead of speech, have some fun conversations about all sorts of things. Find out what your child thinks is hilarious or interesting or scary. Click the link for some ideas. And have fun!

Mama Be Good: Games of Connection

Our First Conversation

My sister-in-law used to rate prayers. After someone would lead in prayer during a worship service she would lean over to my brother and whisper, “I give it an 8.5 out of 10.”
Now before you get upset that this is improper and start quoting Bible verses about “judge not,” let me tell you that she was not mean-spirited about this. She had not grown up in the church, nor had she experienced a church where people prayed spontaneously instead of reciting memorized prayers. So she was just taking notice of the fact that some people were more comfortable with praying out loud in front of others. We all have recognized the same thing. She just voiced it, however crassly.
Many times I have been there listening to someone pray. They speak with such eloquence in perfect King James syntax, putting all the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in just the right places. Or they pray with such heartfelt fervency that heaven itself seems to open up before them. And it just depresses me because I know that my prayers are not like that. Their prayers are Shakespeare and mine are a 5th grade essay marked down for mistakes in grammar.
But it’s OK if our prayers don’t meet high literary standards. It doesn’t matter if we can’t quote Scriptures or speak in Old English. It is irrelevant whether we can pray with flowery, mellifluous language. God meets us where we are. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Romans 8:26, NIV)
When Zach was three years old I was giving him a bath. He stuck his tongue to his lips and blew a raspberry, “bbllbbllblblblbl.” I responded in kind, “bblbllbllbbblllb.” Zach looked at me and repeated his first statement. I answered back using the same inflection he did. He blew another raspberry, this time longer in duration. I matched his timing. He blew a sequence of longer and shorter blasts. I repeated back the same sentence. This went on for some time until he finally tired of it.
That was my first conversation with my son.
It wasn’t sophisticated. It wasn’t refined. It wasn’t deep. But I loved it.
We have had many such conversations since that day. And even though Zach hasn’t spoken to me in English yet, he has still communicated to me many things. He doesn’t have to be eloquent or Shakespearian. I just love to hear my boy speak to me.
I think our heavenly Father feels the same way. Our prayers might just be “blblbbbllblblllbllllbbb” in comparison to other people, but our Father loves it and understands it just the same.

The Door Man

As I sit at the kitchen table drinking my coffee I hear a door close down the hall…then another…then another. I know my son is up. Zach believes that doors are meant to be closed. I assume that in his logic there is no point to a door if it is standing open. It only performs its purpose of dividing space if it is pulled closed. I can’t argue with his reasoning.
Zach is also the official energy conservation warden in our home. He dutifully turns off lights when not in use. Actually, he turns them off whether in use or not. On several occasions I have been in the bathroom when a little hand appears. It reaches in, turns off the light, and closes the door leaving me in the darkness. It really gets interesting in our house when his brother is the one in the bathroom when Zach decides to save a little electricity. Micah doesn’t like the dark so he will start yelling. But Zach is unfazed. He has a job to do and he’s going to do it.
So this is the daily routine in our house. Someone will walk into a room and leave the door open. Zach comes and turns out the light and closes the door. Then the family member will leave the room, and Zach will return to close the door again (and turn off the light if it was left on). Over and over again this happens. And no matter how many times he’s already done it in the day, Zach is there to turn off the lights and shut the door again.
If I were Zach I would have lost it a long time ago. I would have been yelling something along the lines of, “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I GOT TO TELL YOU TO TURN OFF THE LIGHTS AND CLOSE THE DOOR!? WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU!? WHY CAN’T YOU REMEMBER TO DO THIS SIMPLE LITTLE THING!? THIS IS THE LAST TIME I AM GOING TO TELL YOU!” But of course it wouldn’t be the last time.
But Zach never loses his cool. He just goes and closes the door again.
That’s what God does. It doesn’t matter how many times I sin, he’s ready to forgive again. I can vow never to mess up like that again and the next day be guilty of the same trespass. And God just covers the sin again. Time and time again I fall, and he returns to pick me up.

Video Meditation, Part 2

“Where are we, Professor Quiggly?” asks the little frog learning his letters.
“Tad, this is the ‘O’ room, and I would advise that you duck.”
“Duck? Why?”
The professor yanks Tad down into the underbrush just as a capital letter ‘O’ comes swinging over their heads on a vine with a loud Tarzan yell, “Oooooooooooooooooo!” That letter is quickly followed by a group of lower case ‘o’s each swinging on their own vines and repeating their instructor’s sound, “Oooooooooo!”
This is another segment of a video Zach likes to have me repeat. But now he even shuts off the video and has me do it a cappella. He touches my mouth like he’s pushing the “play” button and I recite the script. His eyes intently study the movement of my mouth and his face lights into a big smile as I reach the Tarzan yell. Then he hits “play” again and we repeat. I can see his mind working hard to grasp how my tongue and lips form the words. I know he is moving closer to making those words himself.
The Bible speaks of the righteous person in Psalm 1:2 (NIV), “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Zach truly delights in his videos the way the Psalm writer says the righteous person will delight in God’s Word. Since he was a baby my wife has commented on how Zach smiles with his whole body. He still does and it is often his favorite video scenes that evoke his exuberance.
Again I am challenged by my son’s intensity. The truly righteous will react to the Scriptures just like Zach. He will repeatedly focus on it and draw enormous pleasure from it. I want to experience Zach’s level of sheer joy.
Why would the Bible inspire such a response? It won’t as long as I consider it just words on a page. But if I realize that it is as if I am looking into the face of God and watching him speak these words just to me, then I will be filled with joy knowing the Lord and Creator of the universe loves me. This is meditating on the Scriptures, not a cold, rote exercise, but a child’s joyful concentration on his Father’s words.

Video Meditation

“That’s right!  After another red apple, another green bean, comes another yellow pepper!  That means you’ve answered all 1-2-3-4-5-6 questions.  Congratulations!”

I just wrote that from memory.  It’s a quote from the game show host on a Sesame Street video after Elmo and Zoe complete the quiz.  Zach likes to play this little segment of the video over and over again.  Sometimes he has me count along with the video.  Over and over and over again we count.  Until all of a sudden he is done and he pushes me away.  I’m not sure if there’s a set number of times we have to go through it.  I keep meaning to keep count but then I forget.

But I don’t forget the words of that game show host.  They’ve been run through my mind too many times.  And then it hit me that this is what God wants us to do with his Word.  Joshua 1:8 (NIV) says, “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.”  God commands us to meditate on his Word the same way Zach meditates on his videos.

Meditating on God’s Word means reading it over and over again, turning it over and over in your mind.  Unlike eastern meditation that tries to empty the mind, biblical meditation means to fill the mind with the Scriptures.  It is doing just what Zach loves to do with his videos—replaying them again and again and again, studying every little detail so that he knows it inside and out.

When you do this you become aware of little nuances and details that were overlooked before.  Take the end of the movie Monsters, Inc. for example.  Sully the monster finally returns his friend, the little girl he nicknamed “Boo” to her room.  She immediately begins bringing some of her favorite toys to show him.  She brings him a Nemo toy from Finding Nemo and a Jessie doll from Toy Story 2.  I did not notice that the first time I saw the movie.  I didn’t notice it the second or third time either.  But on the umpteenth viewing of this scene while sitting with Zach I noticed these interesting little details the artists put into the story.  They didn’t have to do it.  But this attention to detail is what makes these Disney films so good.

And God is even better than the Pixar artists.  When we meditate on God’s Word we are sure to see things and understand truths on the twentieth reading that never occurred to us the first time we saw it.  I am challenged to meditate on the Scriptures with the same intensity as my boy.