can you hear me?
21 January 2001
It’s hard to admit your kid might have a problem. You want to close your eyes and make it go away. Maybe when you open your eyes, he will have grown out of it. And maybe he will (though not in the blink of an eye). But maybe he won’t. Not without help.

We took Damian to Dr. Jay Friday for a speech consult. It’s become painfully obvious to me after three weeks of preschool that Damian’s verbal eccentricities, as endearing and frustrating as they are, are also symptoms of something else. The other kids come up to me as I sit on the floor: they ask me questions and tell me their thoughts, and if I ask if they like their snack or their toy or if they want me to read the book again, they answer me. With words.

Damian doesn’t.

Oh, he talks. But his speech is more self-reflective: he recites books to himself as he flips the pages, he narrates the exploits of his toy trucks and trains as he lies on the floor pushing them around, he recites "one, two, three" as he climbs stairs, and he repeats us, echoing the words we use. He plays with language, explores with it, enjoys the sound of the words and the images he creates, and that’s delightful and sometimes extraordinary.

But he doesn’t ask for the cup of juice sitting on the table; instead, he whines and points. If I ask him to point out the cow in the picture, he’ll point right at it, but if I ask him what that brown-and-white mooing beast is, he’ll remain mute.

There’s no such thing as a conversation with Damian -- at least, not one that goes both ways. He communicates his desires and preferences quite effectively with gestures and body language, but almost never with words. He can, certainly: he recently popped his head into the living room and blurted out, "help with toys?" (translation: Mommy will you lie on the floor nearby while I play with my Brio trains?). So he can ask, and sometimes he even does. Each time he does I feel this catch in my throat: he’s normal after all, he’ll be okay after all. But within few days he’s back to his mute ways. He’ll come in and pull on my hand and whine until I follow him into his room. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is? Do you have any idea how scary that is, wondering when or even if he’ll ever reach out with words like a normal child his age?

Dr. Jay’s office is across town in Santa Monica. Dan came with us, which meant dropping the Toyota off at his office first. Damian was none too happy at the sight of Daddy driving off in the blue car. He wailed in the back seat until I pointed out the blue car just one car length ahead of us. Oh, okay. That’s all right then. At one point, I pulled alongside Dan. Who waved to Damian. "Damian, look! Daddy’s waving!" Damian saw. He glowed with a lovely, happy smile. And another a few minutes later when Daddy joined us in the red car. Then off we zoomed to Dr. Jay’s.

The moment we stepped into the waiting room, Damian spotted a fleet of three brightly colored trucks. Joy. We were ushered back to an examining room. Damian gripped a truck with both hands as he padded down the long hall and then immediately settled on the floor to play. When Dr. Jay came in, apologizing for keeping us waiting, Damian didn’t even look up.

When Dr. Jay said Damian’s name, Damian didn’t look up.

When Dr. Jay whistled high and long, Damian didn’t look up.

Damian didn’t look up until I knelt close to him and said in a soft voice, "That’s Dr. Jay over there." Then Damian looked up at the doc, pointed to him, and said "That’s Dr. Jay Gordon over there." And then returned to his laser vision focus on the toys scattered across the floor.

Dr. Jay asked us questions, told us a few things. Damian could be completely fine; some kids do take longer to acquire language skills and then it suddenly pops for them. By age three, he says, he directs most of the session to the child. He tells the kid "if you eat broccoli, you’ll be able to run around longer," for example, and the child listens and responds. That’s three and a half months away. Not much time to us, but a tremendous expanse of Damian’s life. He could change radically between now and then. And right now he’s at one end of the bell curve of normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

But it might.

Dr. Jay watched Damian guide beads along a wire and said it’s obvious that Damian’s smart. This verbal reticence happens sometimes with extremely bright kids: they don’t talk because they know they can get away with pointing, but the day comes, a lightning bolt zaps that "eureka!" bulb in their heads, and they realize they can get a lot more if they ask for it than if they remain mute. Case closed, problem solved, kid self-cures in an instant.

Or it could be delayed speech maturation. It runs in families, and shows up more with boys. I seem to remember that my father didn’t talk at all until he was at least two; I’ll ask my grandmother if she can verify that. My brother might have been much like Damian. My mother says the frustration I describe, that "Just use words! Just tell me!" angst, rings a strong bell, but she doesn’t remember clearly enough. She’s going to ask an old friend this week. If that’s what Damian has, it would eventually clear up on its own but can be sped up with speech therapy.

The next likely culprit is some form of developmental expressive aphasia. One web site I found describes this as "a brain dysfunction that results in an inability to translate ideas into speech." The kid can understand perfectly, and acts normal in every other way, just doesn’t talk. This requires therapy but has an excellent prognosis if it’s caught early.

Damian doesn’t quite fit the profile, though. He doesn’t exactly act normal. He tunes things -- and people -- out. He tuned out the doctor. He seems to be acutely sensitive to his world and sometimes just needs to close up like a clam on a turbulent ocean floor. To retreat. This sounds more serious than I think it is. He’s probably not autistic. He doesn’t show those kinds of signs, not that I can see. He doesn’t shut people out altogether. He smiles at us all the time. He asks for hugs. He’s cuddly and emotionally attached. And he doesn’t do any of those self-soothing repetitive motions, like head banging and the like. He’s more normal than that, just acutely shy.

Dr. Jay left the room for a while to go call a speech pathologist. When he came back, Damian was feeling more relaxed with him. Dan illustrated Damian's ability for Dr. Jay, asking Damian about the picture on the wall behind us: a poster of Winnie the Pooh and company.

Dan: "Do you see Pooh, Damian?"

Damian pointed to the picture.

Dr. Jay: "Who’s that, Damian?"

Damian pointed to the picture again, unwilling to say "Pooh."

Dan: "Where’s Piglet?"

Damian scrambled up to the bench, pointed out Piglet.

Dan: "Where’s Eeyore?"

Damian pointed out Eeyore.

He knows his Pooh. But also, as Dr. Jay said, "The possibility of it being a PDD (pervasive developmental disorder, including autism) is getting more remote by the minute."

Thank god for that.

Damian could have a hearing problem, either physical or neurological. When Dr. Jay came back from talking to the speech pathologist, he gave us the name of a hearing specialist. You can’t just ask a kid this young to hold up his hand when he hears a given sound, so this specialist uses cartoons and such to measure a child’s hearing range. Sounds kind of fun.

And I made an appointment with that speech pathologist. We’re seeing her Tuesday. I don’t know if I look forward to that appointment or dread it. A diagnosis feels final somehow, it sets us on a path as yet unknown.

I’ve been walking around with a hole in my heart since Friday. It’s not that I imagine there’s something so dreadfully wrong with Damian, that he’ll grow up stunted and unable to have normal interactions, normal friendships and loves. Well, if you discount that soft whisper in the inner recesses of my brain that says "What if?" And says "Why him? Why my sweetie pie?" But mostly I know that this will help, this journey we’re embarking on. It will probably be fun for him, too, because speech therapy for little ones is designed to be fun. And if it coaxes him out of his shell step by sliding step, it’s a blessing above all blessings.

I long to have a conversation with my little boy in the car on the way home from school. I want to say, "did you like class this morning?" and have him say "I dunno." I want to say "did you go on the slide?" and have him say "I wanted to but I was scared." I want him to offer up: "Tyson kissed me on the cheek again" and "we ate pizza" and "I want to go play with trains now, Mommy." I want the simple back-and-forth of a normal parent-preschooler relationship. I’m scared we’ll never have it. I’m heartsick that we may only be able to have it with professional assistance. I feel guilty, too, wondering if there’s something I could be doing differently as a parent, if there’s something I’ve done wrong as a parent, to make this intervention necessary.

But the main thing I’ve been feeling -- and I know Dan’s been feeling it too -- is an overwhelming tenderness. Damian seems so young, so sensitive, almost fragile. We want to protect him. We want to surround him with love. We’ve been hugging him a lot the last couple of days, as if we can infuse him with sunny confidence through the sheer force of our love.

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