Thursday, January 28, 2010

Every Child Deserves A Voice

by Megan Steinke (originally on; posted with permission of the author)

Childhood Apraxia of Speech is a motor speech disorder, a neurological disorder where the child cannot plan and coordinate speech movements. Ever have that feeling of a word on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite say it? Or slip over a word you knew and could say in your head? Imagine every word you ever tried to say coming out like that – even though you know what they should sound like, the sounds never quite make it from your brain to your mouth the way you want to say them.

CAS isn’t a very well-understood disorder. It’s also not a very common one, which is why resources on it for parents are pretty scarce. If your child is autistic or ADHD, dyslexic, any of the “common” special needs, you will find a wealth of information. If your child is apraxic, you might think he’s ceased to exist in the literary sphere. There are papers written by speech therapy professionals for speech therapy professionals, but to a layman they’re difficult to understand. Even books devoted to speech disorders don’t really cover it. If it weren’t for the Apraxia Kids Network website, I would have feared I was the only one. The website has been a lifesaver, both in terms of scholarly articles as resources, and as relief from the feeling of isolation that this diagnosis can bring.

Getting a diagnosis of CAS is very scary, but my children had been in speech therapy for two and a half years by the time we got it, and though I was terrified for their future, it was at least preferable to not knowing why they weren’t talking. We had been to countless speech therapists, and finally got in to see the pediatric developmental neurologist, who immediately diagnosed both boys as nearly identical cases of apraxia. He thought they were quite textbook and was surprised no one had diagnosed them before. He was fascinated by how alike their apraxia is. Since the causes of CAS are unknown, a set of identical twins with identical apraxia seems to make speech pathologists’ research senses tingle.

It’s a long and arduous process of speech therapies to bring language out of children with apraxia, and it’s emotionally exhausting for the parents. Support groups are invaluable. It’s a relatively rare disorder, however, so the only support you get may be online. There is a local CAS network in my area – in a group of seven cities with a population in the millions, home to the largest naval base in the world, there are nine children diagnosed with CAS. Two of them are mine. It is very isolating to deal with that kind of number.

I am continually having to explain apraxia to people, because it is so unusual and so unknown – even to their teachers. I spend a lot of time fighting for them, to get them the help they need. The cost of speech therapy for two children in the amount needed for CAS would bankrupt us if we went through a private firm, or worse, through the local children’s hospital. When we saw that the cost would be nearly $600 a week per child (and would go up if insurance decided to stop covering it), we knew we had to find other means to get what we needed. The local university has been invaluable to us, as they have a speech therapy program and need clinical patients for their students. My boys have received excellent therapy there, from some truly wonderful young women who put their whole hearts into my children’s care.

“Will my child ever speak normally?”

I stopped filling in my boys’ baby books as they got older and older and that “first word” slot was staring me in the face. One year old. Two years. Three. I wanted to write something down, anything. But their only noise was a monotone “mmmmm”. I wanted that word. I wanted it very badly. My children were three years old before they called me “Ma” for the first time, and for a very long time that was their only word, and I hugged it close to my heart every time they said it. On their fourth birthday, they had three words: Ma, Da, and buh (brother). They were four and a half when they told me – in words, not sign language – that they loved me.

When they were younger, we would watch the Signing Time DVDs, because the handful of signs that they had learned in speech therapy were their only means of communicating. I would listen to the song at the end – “Show Me A Sign” – and cry because the lyrics that Rachel de Azavedo wrote so touched me. They were exactly what I wanted to know from my children, exactly how I felt. I didn’t feel like I knew them sometimes. I just wanted to know that they were in there. They seemed so distant sometimes, though they were always affectionate, and no one ever saw signs of autism in them, something I feared. I always felt uncertain that I knew anything about who they were.

Tell me that you love me
Tell me that you’re thinking of me
Tell me all about the things you’re thinking
Tell me that you’re happy and you love it when we’re laughing
Tell me more, show me a sign.

I know I’m not alone in that feeling. An SLP presenting at the 2004 Apraxia-KIDS conference wrote a poem of sorts to describe it that is broadly similar, particularly emotionally, to the song. And I know the CAS children feel it too.

While visiting a friend recently who has girl twins a year younger than my boys, they played with the girls’ dolls. Dominic put a baby doll in a stroller, wheeled it up to his brother, and said, “I be the mama, you be the doctor, and this is my baby.” Chris agreed, so Dom in his high-pitched ‘mama’ voice said, “Doctor, something wrong with my baby, he don’t talk. Why don’t my baby talk?” It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I still cry to recount it.

It’s been very hard on us over the past four years since we first began to realize that – as Dominic so succinctly put it – something was wrong with my babies, but we are finally starting to see improvement in huge leaps and bounds. They’ve come from a handful of single-word utterances to long and complex sentences with a vocabulary nearly on par for their age level in only a year, though they still have a lot of articulation errors and strangers find them difficult or impossible to understand. I’m at about 60% understanding what they say. It’s a wonderful thing to hear my children talking to each other, or to have one run past and say “I love you so much, Mama!” I had worried I would never hear it. I hope someday I’ll hear it without distortion.