Deciphering a Toddler

Oh boy… We all know our toddlers develop at different rates, and speech is no different than learning how to run, walk or climb, as all children learn things at their own pace. The difference is navigating and deciphering the communication needs, frustrations, and the oh so interesting ramblings of our children, and it is a LONG process. Hearing parents often have great difficulty understanding their children during these years, and I can only imagine what it is like in a multilingual home. Throw in a deaf parent into the mix and the whole process is even more challenging. I did use sign language to ease the communication paths with all my children, and it helped tremendously. Many hearing parents have done the same, and I encourage that. However, deciphering my children’s speech, ramblings, verbal thoughts, and also modelling, teaching, and correcting their speech and encouraging their vocabulary development is quite the issue in my home.

As the primary caregiver, it was of great concern to me that their speech and vocabulary development went smoothly. Ha… Smoothly. RIGHT………. Excuse me while I double over in laughter…… Whew… All three of my children progressed at different rates, and they all had different environments during those formative years, which I will limit to the first three years for this post…

My older two had two deaf parents, and their father and I had very different experiences that led to different abilities and skills when it came to our language development, and consequently our ability to communicate with our children. Sign language early on was very necessary for us. Their father’s speech was vastly different from mine, and our lip reading skills were on opposite ends of the spectrum. In our household I was the hearing person, as I wore hearing aids, and could hear, whereas he was totally deaf. Granted he had a cochlear implant, however he did not use it for a variety of reasons, which after twelve years of parenting led to different issues with our children that I will address another time. One of the things I did to ensure there was consistent exposure to proper speech was to have our tv on through the day. Yes I know there are detractors and reasons against that, however for us, it served to expose them to correct pronunciation, that would not have occurred frequently enough otherwise. We had the added benefit of the closed captioning on, which years later proved to help develop their reading skills.

My ability to understand my daughter, and then my son, was compounded by what I could actually hear in speech with my hearing aids, which really wasn’t a whole lot. I used a lot of lip reading, context, the environment, the situation, to interpret what they were trying to say. My daughter was pretty much on target development wise, and by the time she was two, she was going full speed ahead speaking in paragraphs. Needless to say I had moments of “what the H—- did she say?!”, because I could not follow her thoughts, and the resulting meltdowns at times. However, she had become proficient at sign language (using what I taught her), and possessed an innate understanding that both her parents could not hear, and had different abilities in communication. I frequently said “I’m sorry honey, Mommy can’t understand you”, which broke my heart. Somehow though, we got through those moments of frustration, and she was able to communicate her needs.

Her brother, in the end, had his sister to help. She interpreted what he was trying to say, and after their father and I split up, she became the hearing person in the household, and helped their father with whatever her brother was trying to communicate. The split caused a new issue for me, as I found that by not having them around constantly, made it all the more challenging to understand my son. My daughter ended up with the responsibility of teaching him to speak properly, to interpret him, and communicate what he needed. Needless to say, that is a huge weight on a child’s shoulders, and I can only imagine what it’s like in a home where both parents are deaf and sign, but the child hears and speaks. He is eight now, and only just landed where he should be in his speech and vocabulary development for his age.

Now, with my two year old toddler, it’s a whole different ball game, and process. His father is hearing, and I was implanted before he turned one, at the start of his speech development. His two siblings are only around on weekends. He was behind on all milestones by comparison to the other two (yes, I know, don’t compare) by a month or so, but over time, it was clear that he was a full on, gross motor child and that was his focus. By the time he was 18 months, I struggled not to worry about the fact his vocabulary was minimal. There was no reason for the delay, his hearing was perfect, his cognitive comprehension and understanding of us were exactly as it should be, and still is. He still communicated his needs although he was never into the sign language. We still don’t have those awful communication meltdowns I had with his brother and sister,and at the time of this post, he is 27 months old.

So how is it, that by now, his vocabulary is still behind, and only just beginning to increase and his speech is slowly becoming clearer? Even more interesting, his twelve year old sister seems to be the only person that has noticed new words being said, and understands him? Part of the reason for implanting when I did, was with the hope that I would have an easier time understanding my children, and in particular my youngest and not have to rely on the hearing people around us to help.

My toddler, while his father and I speak in full sentences, and offer the vocabulary to him as we do things for him and with him, seems fully content to go at his own pace, and seems to prefer to absorb what he hears and mull it over rather than parrot back what he hears. Parroting is normal in speech development, and while he does do it, it is not consistent. Yet, out pops a word here and there, and we literally scramble to acknowledge what he said. Admittedly, his father and I are quiet by nature, and converse only as needed, and thus, Wyatt speaks only when he feels the need to, or wants to.

Here’s the thing though… What he says is so random, that we often question what we hear. For his father, who hears, he will comment when he thinks he heard something specific, but more often than not, he is as confused as I am. Yet this child will frequently stand in front of us, and speak what appears to be sentences, and in fact a conversation, yet all we get are:” Mom, ah da blah dad eh ……. ……. ……. (Insert random sounds).” With this complete look of seriousness, and a clear demonstration of communication and body language, then smile at us and off he goes to play. However I cannot for the life of me figure out what he has said and cannot help but feel sad, and at the same time, just smile and laugh at his attempts. His father and I frequently look at each other, and shrug our shoulders indicating a “what the H— did he say”, and shake our heads smiling.

Yet, after over a year, I am beginning to hear specific speech sounds, and beginning to differentiate and decipher them. In the past month alone I have begun to notice, and thus list words that he says clearly, and reinforce it, since I started my AVT (auditory verbal therapy). It is a slow process and I feel almost as if I am learning at the same rate he is. Learning to hear those sounds heard in speech, and learning to recognize when he has figured out how to pronounce them.

All our toddlers speak what seems like gobbledygook for at least a couple years, sometimes more. Some develop quicker than others, and some will wait until they are three and suddenly speak full paragraphs, as if they’ve been talking all along. For us as parents, it’s a fun, interesting and challenging period. For me, right now, it’s got an added component: I am learning, and training myself to actually HEAR speech sounds. It has kind of added an interesting element to the process of learning to understand my toddler, and communicate better with my partner and older two children.

I have always understood the process of language development, but now, I am realizing that it isn’t just figuring out how to pronounce those sounds they hear; it is also learning to distinguish, differentiate, and apply those speech sounds, and then the words themselves, and using them correctly. How I learned to speak as well as I do without learning to hear those sounds the way I am now, I will never know. Somehow I did, and I have a better sense of what I truly accomplished at age four, when I began the whole process myself, of learning to talk, read, using what I heard. So as I learn to listen, to hear, I am also learning to see just what my toddler is learning, and processing. Thus my concerns about his language and speech development has lessened, because I have joined him on the same very path, forty years later. It is an interesting revelation, and one that has me thinking about what my future holds, and what I can take from this experience.

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