When my son Liam was diagnosed with apraxia of speech at age 3, his Dad was less than one month into a year long deployment to Afghanistan. The news was crushing. Suddenly, the possibility that our first born child would never speak, was our reality. Co parenting was impossible as our communication was cut off with Dad at war-- it was all up to me.
The first thing I did was quit sleeping. I stayed up reading, researching and networking online with other parents who had walked the same path. I read every book in existence on apraxia.
As I broadened my awareness, I began to understand two different paths parents were choosing to take. The more commonly travelled was using a device like Stephen Hawking to speak. The child would spend hundreds of hours learning how to use the device, and have the machine speak in a robot like voice. The road less travelled was sign language. Interestingly enough, I had been learning sign language since I myself was just seven years old. And, I just so happened to be at the point in my college career when I could not move forward until I selected a second language to study. The choice was obvious to me. Mother's intuition was buzzing. I signed up for ASL 1 and started informing the professionals around my son that we would be traveling the road less travelled, ASL. We ordered every episode of Signing Time on DVD and got to work! My research had helped me to understand that the neural pathways in the brain of the apraxic child were likely damaged. I also understood that the neural pathways where ge`stural language (signed languages) travelled was a different area in the brain altogether. So I had a hypothesis, that if we could teach my son ASL, he would first, have a full language ability to express himself. And secondly, we could use ASL as a bridge to verbal communication. Would it be possible to reroute his verbal communication through gestural language pathways by pairing speech with sign? We had to find out. So, we immersed ourselves in Deaf culture and were accepted fully into the Deaf community through our passion for the language. The most priceless gift my son and I have received to date in this world, is the love and acceptance we received from the Deaf Community in a time of great vulnerability.
We were blessed to live in New York State at this time, the state leads the nation in special education spending. My research had made me pain fully aware of the funding struggles special ed kids face. To succeed, my son needed to have special ed preshool year round, occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy everyday and a one on one aide who was also an ASL interpreter. This all meant big bucks for the district, and it took a bit of advocacy and time, but we got it done. Now my son could start the work of learning day by day how to communicate. The one on one aide who was also an ASL interpreter was the key to my sons learning to speak. I developed a good relationship with her and she was present with my son in his therapy sessions so that she could carry over therapy. Together we developed a unique and individualized method of teaching Liam to speak through the power of American Sign Language.
Liam was almost 5 years old now, and still not speaking. Home for spring break, he was given a homework packet that he was very engaged in, about Martin Luther King, Jr. Liam had already expressed in ASL a very special liking to MLK. Knowing this, I chose to write my History term paper on MLK, inspired by Liam. Day by day I shared with him all sorts of interesting facts about the King. This day I had finished my paper and I sat with Liam and read to him what I had written and asked him if he liked it. He did. Happy, Liam showed me his coloring pages in his homework packet. We started looking in particular at one picture of Martin Luther King at Washington monument. I asked Liam questions about his work, and to the greatest joy of my life, Liam responded in speech for the first time. I said, "Liam where is this?" Liam: "Waa Eee Tuh Mo uu Meht" To say... Washington Monument. This was the most enunciated utterance of Liam's life- and the meaning was 100% clear. Then I asked him who is that there at Washington Monument and he replied in his way "King Jr" I was now officially the happiest Mom on Planet Earth. I knew that my son knew the power to communicate. And was working so hard to have his voice heard. And he would succeed. A few short months later, in planning our route of our move from New York to Texas, I insisted to go the long route across the states, through Washington DC. There, I stood in silence with my beautiful son at the Washington Monument, in gratitude for another great gift the King had bestowed upon my life.
Anne Devlin is a mother, writer, photographer, advocate and founder of www.deaflitproject.org. An aspiring adoptive mother and humanitarian- she lives with her two sons in Eugene, Oregon in community.
Liam is now 10 years old and proudly working on his third language after ASL and English, the Japanese!