"Look At Me"

"Look At Me"
monotype and screenprint

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Foreign Language

I've been trying to clean our house, because I'm painting the kitchen and the living room.  I am going to redo Tyler's room and Derek's room as well.  The last time I decorated their rooms was when I was pregnant with them, and well...they aren't babies anymore.  Tyler turns 7 next month and Derek is 5.  It's time.

So anyway, as I clean I keep coming across things that remind me of when Derek was little.  It's hard for me.  I remember the fear and uncertainty I felt when Derek was first diagnosed.

Derek 2 days after diagnoses.  July 17, 2009

I don't know what to do with half the stuff I find.  For instance, I found Derek's PECS board.  Do I keep it?  Or throw it away since he doesn't need it anymore.  (For those of you who don't know what PECS is, it's Pictures Exchange Communication System.  You use pictures instead of words to communicate.  We used this for a while when Derek was completely non-verbal.)  Maybe I should keep it and use it to make a schedule of daily activities?  They have one for Derek at preschool.  Although if Derek doesn't like something on his picture schedule, he goes and gets a picture from someone else's schedule and sticks it on his own.  (Yes, my boy is smart.)

Then I found a flashcard with a picture of a dog on it.  Shut the front door! (I'll come back to this.)

People still ask me how I knew Derek was autistic.  I didn't.  But he started showing signs when he was about a year old.  It's easy to see them now.  (It wasn't at the time.)  There were a lot of red flags.  He wasn't clapping, he wasn't waving, he wasn't pointing, and he wasn't saying anything.  The lack of speech didn't worry me too badly, because I figured Derek was a late talker.  But between 12 months and 18 months, Derek started doing other things that were "worrisome."  He stopped making eye contact.  He stopped responding to the sound of my voice.  He started doing repetitive things like rolling his cars and trains back and forth and watching the wheels spin.  He also started running in circles and flapping his hands.

I didn't know what autism was.  I just knew my baby was not making the progress he was supposed to.  But his pediatrician didn't seem overly concerned.  She suggested getting Derek's ears checked to make sure he was hearing properly.  So we did. We even had the sedated ABR (Auditory Brainstem Response) test, which tests the function of the hearing pathway from the ear to the brainstem.  Everything came back normal.

Derek's story is a little bit different than some.  At 18 months, Derek still hadn't spoken a single word.  That's not too unusual for people on the spectrum.  But we discovered at this time that Derek didn't understand language.  Does that make sense?  Derek did not know that the sounds coming out of my mouth meant anything.  The closest thing I can compare it to, since I'm not Derek, is when you go to a foreign country and hear the natives speak a different language.  It sounds like gibberish.  I even tested my theory.  If I said, "Bath?" to Derek, I got no response.  But if I turned the water on in the tub, he'd hear it and come running.  I tested him all the time with things I knew he liked to do, like "Go outside?" or "Tickle?" and never got a response.  The day I realized that Derek didn't know his own name, I cried my eyes out.  I was terrified. How in the world do you teach a child that words have meaning?

Most kids learn language naturally.  They hear their parents say hi and repeat it, because their parents smile and cheer them on.  Derek did not learn language naturally.  We had to teach him language word by painstaking word, through flashcards.

We started slowly with a flashcard of an apple.  For hours, Derek's therapists and I would sit with him and say "Apple" very slowly and show him the picture of the apple.  We made him put his hand on the card when we said it.  After a while, Derek finally figured it out and was able to identify an apple on command.  So then we added a picture of a banana and so-on-and-so-forth.  He had to identify flowers, cars, hats, shoes, you name it.  But we also had to teach him that the pictures transferred over to real life--that a REAL apple was also an apple--not just the picture of one.

Think about how confusing that must have been for a second.  Language is hard!  I'll give you an example.  There are lots of breeds of dogs, yet we were asking Derek to recognize that even though they looked different, a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua were both "Dogs."  (No, we did not try to teach him all the breeds of dogs.  He was 3, and he thought a horse and a dog looked the same.)

As you can imagine, it was a challenge.  No, I'll take that back--it was exhausting and frustrating and seemed like the most impossible task in the world.  I cried myself to sleep a lot back then.

So when I found the flashcard the other day, I got chills. I realized just how far my child has really come.  I'm sure people get tired of me bragging about Derek's new words--after all, he's 5 years old and should have been saying most of these words 3 years ago.  But they don't know his story.  They don't know what he had to do to learn English.  That Derek understands language (to some extent) seems miraculous to me.  The fact that he is SPEAKING????  Blows my mind.

The other day when we were watching a movie, Derek saw a lion, a tiger, and a giraffe.  As they came on the tv screen, he said, "lion," "tiger," and "giraffe."  I doubt that Derek remembers how hard he had to work to learn those animals by name.  But I remember.  And I know he is capable of ANYTHING.


  1. i think i would ALWAYS treasure that flashcard. DOG. a definite for 'the book' (memory book).

    good job mama! <3

  2. I'll never forget when my oldest had his hearing tested under anesthesia...the doctor came out to talk to us after the procedure and stated very simply with a smile, "You're son has perfect hearing, he's just very good at ignoring you". I had a gut instinct that he was autistic, but I had no clue how to take that statement at the time. Most important though, every accomplishment is a huge success, and he's accomplished a lot to be proud of....Congrats to you both <3

    1. Thank you! I agree, every accomplishment is a huge success. :)

  3. My 2 1/2 year old little guy was diagnosed yesterday. No surprise to us at all but still for SO HARD to hear out loud. Your guys pre-diagnosis history sounds very familiar to me and it is so awesome that he has made such progress!

    1. Those words are very hard to hear. Just remember that he is still the same kid he was yesterday and 6 months ago. Now you just have the information you need to help him reach his full potential. :) Let me know if there is anything I can do. It's not an easy journey, but it's full of unexpected and beautiful blessings.