I was honored to be invited to participate in the S-O-S Best of the Best Blogs. The topic this month is social skills and play skills in children with invisible special needs, and I was happy to share this story. Thank you again to S-O-S for the opportunity!
The note from the preschool teacher:
... J-man was a little aggressive today with the kids... he was tackling one of the kids in fun!
Upon reading a note like this, most parents would be upset. Horrified!
Me? I was thrilled!
J-man is nearly four years old with significantly impaired language (think 2.5 standard deviations below the mean), apraxia of speech (hence huge intelligibility issues) and social skill delays. When J-man was evaluated this summer, the assessment noted : ...clinical impression is that J-man's challenges are related to his language challenges and a self-directed temperament in which maintaining a modicum of control is important.
Translation: J-man is a control freak who tends to keep to himself. Yep.
Understanding how J-man relates to his world, to people, and to communication in general has been a bit of a puzzle for us. He has always exhibited an interest in other children. He finds them funny, amusing to watch, much like TV. But his understanding of how to engage others, especially children, has always lagged far behind. He watches from the sideline, quiet and withdrawn. The tremendous language issues he deals with are only part of the problem... no doubt probably the central feature of his social deficits... but there is also this inattention to social cues, this lack of desire to engage, that exacerbates the problem.
Six months ago, if another child took J-man's toy, he would walk away.
Six months ago, if other children were running a race, he might watch. He might not.
Six months ago, if other boys were wrestling each other, rough play, tackling... he might ignore them completely.
And today, when the boys in J-man's classroom start rough play, he tries to join in. When the kids race around the playground, he races with them. When another child tries to take his toy, he defends himself. In other words, he is slowly starting to do what every other child his age does.
When a child has a significant language delay, the emphasis seems to be on building vocabulary and getting the child to respond to requests for information (i.e. answer questions) and follow directions. While this can demonstrate the 'raw' language and knowledge that a child has, I think it provides an illusion of communication ability that does not actually exist. What is lacking... and what is essential... is the ability to have engaged social conversation. Teaching a child to talk, to 'respond', is one thing.... teaching a child to become socially engaged and communicative is something entirely different.
We are trying to embrace the Communicating Partners approach, which focuses on the importance of building social communication instead of merely language. It is a slower approach, I think, dependent of a series of techniques that pull the child into paying attention to social cues, engaging in positive interactions, matching the child where they are and allowing them to build their language within the context of social relationships. Again, the basic principles are as follows:
Balance: Talk about as much as your child; wait and take turns.
Match: Talk in ways that are possible and interesting for the child.
Respond: Talk about your child’s immediate experiences and ideas.
Share control: Allow both you and the child to lead and follow equally.
Be playful: The more enjoyable you are, the more your child will talk.
What we have found by engaging J-man with these techniques is that he has become aware of us. More present. And aware of the importance of communicating with us. Don't get me wrong... he still sucks at it. And his ability to naturally engage and understand social cues, language, and rules will probably always be 'different'. But it is like he is slowly waking up. It is a beautiful thing, and a terribly fragile thing.
There is still great reason for concern. Because, while it is totally "developmentally normal" at four years old to engage in rough play with your peers, understanding the subtle social cues of when, where, and how to do this are well beyond J-man. And explaining it, also well beyond him. And the likelihood of him understanding.... well beyond. How will he develop these skills without the fundamental innate ability to develop these skills? He is at this awkward crossroads of starting to see the value of social relationships and the complete lack of language and skills to really make those relationships work.
My job is to help him. And how do I do that when I can't be there to support it? To translate his limited, awkward speech, to interpret the actions of others, and his actions to others? To guide him? That was my hopes for what the school district support would have provided, but as you all know, that is no longer an option. And so, we go on our own....
Ahhh... and there is the rub.