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.

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.

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.

Still Waters

There’s an old saying that “still waters run deep.”  Being non-verbal, Zach’s “waters” are very still.  But I know there is a lot going on inside him.

Webster’s Dictionary lists one of the meanings of the word “dumb” as “lacking the ability to speak.”  They also note that this is often an offensive term.  I completely agree.  I think this usage of the word should be abandoned.  While Zach is currently lacking the ability to speak, he is most definitely NOT dumb.

We mistakenly assume that since a person cannot express their thoughts they must not have them.  Here’s a little excerpt from a blog I saw that demonstrates once again that this idea is false. 

A year and a half later, Hannah sits with her tutor at a small computer desk in her suburban home outside New York City. Facilitated communication is controversial (critics complain that it’s often the facilitator who is really communicating), but it has clearly turned Hannah’s life around. Since her breakthrough, she no longer spends much of her day watching Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. Instead, she is working her way through high school biology, algebra and ancient history. “It became obvious fairly quickly that she already knew a lot besides how to read,” says her tutor, Tonette Jacob.

During the silent years, it seems, Hannah was soaking up vast storehouses of information. The girl without language had an extensive vocabulary, a sense of humor and some unusual gifts. One day, when Jacob presented her with a page of 30 or so math problems, Hannah took one look, then typed all 30 answers. Stunned, Jacob asked, “Do you have a photographic memory?” Hannah typed “Yes.”

Before I am corrected by Sheldon Cooper I will acknowledge the semantic error.  She does not have a “photographic memory” but an eidetic memory.

This story illustrates what I know to be true of Zach also, that he is “soaking up vast storehouses of information.”  He doesn’t seem to pay attention to what is going on around him and then, all of a sudden, he begins clearing his dishes off the dinner table.  Unfortunately, he initially cleared them into the trash.  But with a little redirection he now very dutifully takes his dishes to the sink.

He also used to leave his empty water bottles just lying around.  Then, quite unexpectedly, he started throwing them away.  But there might be a current of sibling rivalry motivating this behavior.  Its genesis coincided with his brother’s push to recycle.  The recycling messages on PBS worked on Micah.  He has gotten excited about it so we have given him the job of collecting all the bottles for recycling.  This has led to the Bottle Wars as Zach goes to throw his empty (and sometimes not so empty) in the trash can and Micah is horrified and tries to rescue it to put in the recycling bin.

Just like Hannah, Zach loves Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues as well as many others.  He has quite a collection of DVD’s we have accumulated over the years.  And he seems to have them all catalogued in his brain.  He will look through the DVD’s and then go find the picture (PEC, Picture Exchange Communication) of the show he is looking for and give it to me.  Sure enough, the one he wants is not in the pile.  It is usually one that got so old and scratched that it no longer played and we got rid of it.  But Zach still remembers it and can recall it out of nowhere.  Still waters, indeed.

New Perspective on Written Prayers

Being raised a Baptist I learned that prayer is talking to God in your own words.  We did not memorize or recite previously written prayers because that is not how a child communicates with his Father.  But Zach changed my thinking on this.

A couple of years ago we got a communication device for Zach.  It was basically a computer screen with pictured buttons on it.  When Zach would push the cookie button the computerized voice would say, “I want a cookie.”  My wife, Jan, set up the system with buttons for all of Zach’s favorite things, from Oreo cookies to going on the swing.  Still he was not quick to take to this new method.  He was quite content with his photos that he would hand us to request an item and saw no need to upgrade the system.

Then we had our breakthrough at the zoo.  As we were walking toward the entrance gates Zach pushed a button and the computerized voice said, “I want to ride the train.”

That’s when my attitude toward written prayers changed.  Even though my boy did not vocalize these words, even though my wife programmed the phrase into the machine, even though the voice was a recording of some child actor, this sentence expressed Zach’s desire.

There’s nothing patently more spiritual about spontaneous prayer off the top of one’s head as opposed to written prayers.  If God didn’t want to hear any written prayers then why did he give us a book of the Bible filled with them (the Psalms)?  God looks at the heart.  “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16, NIV)

What was important was that “I want to ride the train” expressed Zach’s request.  And his father heard him and gave him what he asked.