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.

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.