Before my son was born, I was an enthusiastic middle school teacher in a tough part of Chicago. I was dedicated to struggling readers, writers, and mathematicians. But I drew the line at "special education." That wasn't my territory, not because I didn't care, but because I didn't know how to really participate. Back then, special education and general education were two very separate worlds.
Then I had my son and slowly over time, my world view changed both professionally and most dramatically, personally. Evan was perfect and beautiful and filled my heart with indescribable joy. I never dreamt that he would encounter challenges beyond the normal life experiences. I was a first-time mom, living in a rural area, with no extended family to "hang out" with. As I took my little baby in for his well-child visits, I would look at the poster on the wall of the exam room. It outlined language development for the typical child, with all the important milestones. I noticed that Evan was not doing most of the things he was supposed to be doing. During his nine-month checkup, I expressed my concerns to his pediatrician. He said, "Let's wait and see. Boys tend to lag behind girls in development." Everyone else echoed that same feeling, some people even mentioned how Einstein didn't talk until he was four. Looking back, his minimal vocalizations, lack of tongue movement, etc. were so obviously different than the norm. I regret that no one ever seemed alarmed, not that I feel that intervention at this point would have made any difference.
At each doctor visit thereafter, I expressed my concern about his language development and how it was not at all comparable with what was listed on the chart. Finally, at 18 months, the pediatrician recommended that I contact the local Birth - 3 program for an evaluation. The results of the evaluation were quite a shock. I thought he had delays in language development, but in fact, their results indicated that he was delayed in 4 out of 5 categories! Hearing these results was the beginning of a long roller coaster ride of emotions and advocacy that continues today as my son progresses through elementary school.
Progress in speech development has been painstakingly slow. This slow progress has me on a mission to find out how I can help my son. At first I thought he was just slow in learning to talk. A gap began to grow between his expressive and receptive language. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Childhood Apraxia of Speech. As we progressed through therapy and Early Childhood programs, I learned that I had to be the "case manager" for my child. This affects my life in many ways: I invest a lot of time in searching for appropriate services, making phone calls, driving to therapy appointments, meeting with school personnel, and educating myself and others on this mysterious condition known as apraxia.
Professionally I have, of course, become more interested in special education. I'm trying to figure out this inclusion thing - how to make it work for everyone (not an easy task). I also got involved in an interdisciplinary leadership training program that focuses on children with developmental disabilities and their families. This has, among other things, allowed me to attend national advocacy conferences.
Personally, I have become a parent advocate. I am proactive in educating the community about apraxia. I spent man hours in my son's classroom, helping his classmates understand why it is that my son has difficulty talking. At first they would say to me, "Evan can't talk." I would respond, "No, Evan can talk, it's just harder for him." I was glad I was able to be there to discourage that perception of him. I never wanted Evan to hear someone say that he can't talk.
As a teacher, I am now a big believer in the potential of inclusive education. While in kindergarten, my son's language grew more than ever before. Being around same-age peers that not only model language, but also engage Evan in academics and social activities is invaluable. Our school is somewhat unique in that it is very multicultural. When talking about diversity, most people talk about race, culture, language, and religion. We often neglect to include the abundant diversity in ability. I know that Evan's classmates have benefited from his presence as I've been fortunate to spend a lot of time with his classmates and their parents. Educators need to take on the responsibility of providing children with the opportunity to accept and celebrate the many differences in our society. We adults need to nurture and value the compassion that exists in young children. Wouldn't our world be an amazing place if we valued compassion as much as we do competition?
How does Childhood Apraxia of Speech affect my son? I'm not really sure. At this point, he can not express to me what is in his heart. I don't really, really know how he sees himself and I can't infer what his self-concept is. I don't know his own unique perspective on the world. He does know that he is "different" and that few people understand what he says. Right now, his social nature is an asset as he is persistent in forming friendships with other children. He's also a relatively happy child and doesn't get explosive in his frustration. He finds many ways to communicate, using gestures and words. I do think that his challenges with apraxia have allowed him to develop an incredibly empathetic spirit. When he sees a child cry, he puts his arm around that child. In silent gestures, he communicates that he cares and understands.
How does Childhood Apraxia of Speech affect me? Personally, I'm still riding an emotional roller coaster. I thought by now I would be more "together", that I wouldn't get sad at unexpected times. As I write this essay, I get tearful reflecting on the fact that I don't know anything about the inner life of my child. I get angry that he has such a huge challenge that affects just about every aspect of his life. I get frustrated that I can't ever do enough to help him or that I can't make it "go away." I get stressed over the behavioral challenges that arise. But I also get energized when Evan makes gains in the words he says. I celebrate even the littlest things that other parents take for granted. But mostly, when I tuck my son into bed every night, my heart fills with a feeling of love that I never knew before he came into my world.