At 18 months old, it was clear that my daughter was behind on the speech spectrum. I could count the number of words she struggled to say on one hand, and she had difficulty making most sounds.
Since she had spent those first 18 months in an orphanage, my husband and I took this in stride and worked with her each and every day as we not only helped her to learn a new language, but to learn what being part of a family is all about. We made sure to speak, read, sing, interact, and play appropriate games with her, but nothing seemed to help.
Family and friends tried to make light of things, suggesting we were expecting too much or that she really wasn’t struggling – pointing out this child or that child who had been behind in speech and/or who had waited to talk “until he was good and ready.” But when you live with a child with a true speech delay and witness firsthand the frustration, anxiety, and sometimes even fear (especially for a child entering what is more or less a new world to them), you know in your gut this is more than a stubborn toddler trying to keep control of her destiny.
Speech delay in adopted children is common - even more so in children adopted internationally who may have spent any length of time in an orphanage setting where one-on-one interaction or stimulation is less frequent, medical care may be lacking, and nutrition and other basic necessities may fall below the standard.
This is what my experience taught me about helping your adopted child through a speech delay.
1. Do not pretend it’s not happening.
While there’s a lot going on in the toddler years that may get in the way or delay a child - adopted or not – from tackling language, speech delay is a huge red flag that should not be ignored. And despite all the would-be professionals surrounding you, nobody knows your child better than you do. Your child’s speech delay is not a reflection on his intelligence, nor is it a reflection on your parenting. Not only should you investigate your child’s speech delay for the obvious reasons, but also to rule out any hidden medical conditions that often lead to or contribute to speech and overall communication problems.
2. Beware friendly advice.
You are bound to receive all sorts of advice from those who have speech delay stories to share. I once had a well meaning friend advise me not to worry because her son was also speech delayed and she often had difficulty making out what he was saying. As she was telling me this, knowing full well my daughter had yet to put more than one word together, her son wandered up and beautifully executed a complete sentence as clear as that day was long. Most friends do notice your child’s delay, but may not want to hurt your or your child’s feelings. Others may not realize the complications involved in speech delay and truly assume all kids naturally catch up on their own. I oftentimes found myself nodding and smiling politely to such advice, knowing it was not going to help her to communicate any time soon.
3. Act sooner rather than later.
Still way behind by her second birthday, my daughter struggled to communicate her basic needs. I did not know her favorite foods, colors, toys, or overall moods as we struggled to play a daily game of charades to communicate the basics. Sometimes she would avoid communication altogether and, in an almost robot-like state, attempt to do things for herself. While this sign of independence was sometimes cute and those witnessing it from outside our four walls praised her for it, it did little to help as we were trying very hard to bond with our daughter. I mentioned this to her doctor, but he didn’t seem concerned. Still, he offered me the number of a county representative in case I wanted to have her evaluated for services. Pretty sure I ran home with that number and put in a call right away. From everything I’d read, early intervention is key to getting your child the help he needs.
4. It’s not the end of the world.
Making that call to the county representative was one of the greatest things I could’ve done for my daughter. The representative came out to our house soon after for a basic eval and to fill out some forms. She also shared some tips she’d learned throughout the years having worked so closely with so many speech therapists. My husband and I put these tips into play immediately and saw a small difference immediately! We literally could not wait for therapy to start. Finally, someone had listened to, witnessed the problem, and responded to our plea for help – and had helpful answers! From that day forward, I knew my daughter was going to be okay.
5. Be Patient.
Once we were entered into the system, we still had to go through a series of tests before our daughter could be placed into a program. It can feel pretty overwhelming, but luckily these folks are passionate about what they do and truly want to see the children they serve improve. As it turned out, our daughter was designated as severely delayed (shocker), and we started therapy as soon as the last test was completed, the paperwork was signed off, and a therapist was assigned to our case.
For the record, progress can seem painstakingly long depending on the circumstances, but any progress is good progress. Keep your eye on the long-term prize and keep pushing toward it. I sat in on every session and sometimes questioned how and what the therapist was doing, but really, my daughter was making progress each and every time at her pace The first time she spoke (what I felt was) a more complex, yet still one syllable word, I nearly cried right then and there.
Admittedly, there were times that I questioned whether or not our therapist was moving quickly enough–or that it was a good match. Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut (again) and/or get second opinions. As a friend who does this for a living pointed out to me, not all therapists are created equal. In our case, despite what felt like slow progress, we believed we had a good one and stuck with her straight through Kindergarten. Our daughter grew to love and respect her, and that also played a huge role in her receptiveness to therapy. She was also helpful to point out to me things I could do to work with my daughter in between sessions – things that would help and not hinder her progress. I mention this because the would-be professionals in your life will also offer up all sorts of “therapies.” My personal advice is to shut that down before it starts and leave the professional therapist in charge.
6. Stick with it.
Signing our daughter up for Pre-K meant that we had to go through yet another and even more involved round of testing to get her into the school system vs. county system. This meant a whole bunch more doctors visits and consults – everything from the standard physical to psychological testing, to in-house visits, to more speech testing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep before my daughter began Pre-K, worrying and fretting whether or not she would be able to communicate, make friends, or just “do it.”
The truth is, as stated above, speech delay is not a reflection on intelligence. It turned out my fear and lack of sleep was for nothing. She did great in Pre-K and has done great each year since – only complaining now that she wants to stop services to focus on other interests. While she’s close, I work closely with the school and its speech therapist in order to determine what’s in her best interest.
7. Be your child’s advocate.
We can’t control what happens to our adopted children before they come into our world, but we must advocate for them once they do. In some cases, speech delay may be minor and simply require extra attention or a short-term visit from a therapist to bring a child up to speed. For others, speech therapy will start in the toddler years and may require continuation for several years.
I often tell my daughter how lucky she is to get this extra boost of help to perfect her speech – to help her to see how truly important speech is in her life and how it will help her to someday achieve her dreams. Her speech delay has not stopped her from being a great student, making friends, excelling in activities, trying out for musicals (and winning lead roles), doing the school morning announcements, and taking over dinner table conversation like only she can do. We often joke that for someone who used to be so quiet, now she never stops talking!
If you suspect that your child’s silence is the result of something more than a stubborn toddler or overly shy or timid child, please take the time to do your research – there are mountains of articles on speech delay in children as well as information through your pediatrician and/or county services. The sooner our find out, the sooner you can do something about it!