At my son’s three year check-up, our pediatrician pointed to a picture in a book: “What color is this bird?”
The doctor turned the page. “And what color is this bird?” he asked, pointing to a yellow bird.
“Leh-woe,” my son whispered. My son was speaking so softly that I’m not even sure the doctor knew he had answered the question.
Wolfy’s goofy way of pronouncing things was sort of cute, but at three years old, his lack of articulation was starting to have a negative impact on his life.
When he tried to make new friends, he wasn’t shy about asking other kids if they wanted to play. But when they couldn’t understand what he was saying, they would just shake their heads and ignore him. And I worried: What might happen if my son got separated from me in a store? He wouldn’t be able to tell anyone his name or my name. How would he get back to me?
At the end of my son’s check-up, he was referred to our school district’s special education department to be evaluated for a possible speech delay. I was not surprised; the doctor hadn’t understood anything he tried to say. My son talks a lot and has a large vocabulary, but when he speaks, everything comes out sounding garbled. It’s like his mouth doesn’t know how to make words.
Because I am the only person who is able to understand my son, I have been acting as a translator for him ever since he said his first words. But even I was surprised to see how shy my little boy acted when he was asked to speak for himself. I had ignored his speech problem for long enough. My son was starting to become aware that people had a hard time understanding him. He was becoming embarrassed of the way he talked.
He couldn’t always rely on me to be his translator. It was time for him to learn to speak for himself.
I know a little bit about the stigma surrounding special education because I worked in elementary schools for eight years. Often my job was within the special education department. I’ve been part of IEP (Individualized Education Plan) teams. One meeting sticks out in my mind: Sitting with numerous teachers and professionals on one side of a table while the mother of the student sat on the other and her little boy played on a computer in the corner because she couldn’t get childcare for the meeting.
But this was the first time I had ever been in that spot on the other side of the table. And suddenly, I was the mother whose child was playing in the corner while we talked about him. Suddenly, I was the person being asked to sign off on the forms stating my legal rights. All of that was scary and strange, but I had expected those feelings. The surprise was how negatively my friends and family reacted to my son being referred to special education.
A family friend was appalled. “You’re not going to listen to that doctor, are you?” Someone else suggested I seek a second opinion. I tried to explain that going through the special education evaluation was a lot like getting a second opinion, but they shook their head and said I shouldn’t let it get that far.
People have a particular idea about what kind of child qualifies for special services. And I know that other parents might keep something like speech therapy a secret. They don’t want to reveal anything that would portray their child as less than perfect. But I feel like this is precisely what perpetuates the stereotypes about children who receive special services.
People think special education is bad. It was bad news that my son was entering this terrible system. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about it. Instead, I was supposed to fight against it. I was supposed to hide it. I was supposed to be disappointed and ashamed. I was supposed to feel as uncomfortable as they felt.
Now, my son is four years old. He is getting the help he needs, and his speech articulation is improving. These days, he rarely needs me to act as his translator. I’m so happy that I didn’t listen to the people who told me that our doctor was wrong. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to everyone who told me to wait and who made me feel ashamed of seeking help for my son.
Wolfy isn’t embarrassed that he receives special education services. I explained it to him that going to speech therapy is like learning to play soccer or write his name. He is simply teaching his body how to form sounds. I’m open about it and he is open about it.
When I talk about all of this, adults still whisper to me that nothing is wrong with my son. They think that they are being reassuring, but I already know that nothing is wrong with him.
Nothing is wrong with needing extra help.
©2016 Britta Eberle as first published on Sammiches & Psych Meds