You might think hearing your nonverbal four year old use a word to request something he wants or needs would be wonderful, exciting, fantastic, or any other number of positive adjectives. But for me it is almost always heartbreaking and agonizing. This is because R generally only manages to push the word out for what he needs when he has reached a level of utter agony and desperation. You can see on his face in those moments that he has employed every possible tortured, screaming brain cell in the task of forcing out a single word in a last-ditch effort to make us understand. Most of the time this happens with the word “cookie,” which may not seem like a desperate situation, but it is.
Reza has a very important night waking ritual, and that is that when he wakes in the middle of the night he eats chocolate chip cookies and drinks some water, and then he goes back to sleep. He repeats this in the morning when he wakes for the day. He does this every day, and in the absence of this ritual he essentially has what amounts to a panic attack. It is extremely mentally painful for him. We always know what he needs (his cookies), but occasionally we have run out without realizing and it’s 3am and there are no cookies anywhere and he is screaming in pain and terror because the cookies need to be there and they’re not. He tries every way he knows to tell us what he needs. He leads me by the hand to the cabinet over and over. He leads his Dad to the cabinet. He screams and sobs and violently throws anything we try to offer in place of the missing cookies. And sometimes, sometimes, in that moment of extreme distress he manages to push the word “cookie” desperately out of his mouth, spending the last of his strength to do so, hoping this might finally cause us to understand his need and to provide it for him. It tears my heart to pieces because there is nothing I can do and I know his having produced that word at all is a measure of his agony.
Once, something like this happened during the afternoon while his after school therapist and a new BCBA were present. Later that week we had his annual IEP meeting and the new home BCBA came with. While we were discussing R’s communication needs she piped up and recounted how she heard him say “cookie” when he was extremely distressed and desperate. She suggested to the team that we withhold highly preferred items until he gets desperate enough to say the word to request. My mouth was open to object but R’s special education teacher beat me to it. “No,” she said, “we’ve learned from working with R that while he can sometimes say a word, he often later loses the word(s) and genuinely cannot produce the word anymore.” She went on to reiterate the focus on PECS and other nonverbal communication strategies for R. Have I mentioned how much I love this teacher? No kid should be tortured into producing speech, let alone when they often legitimately cannot produce that speech no matter how desperate they are.
But of course there ARE times when R occasionally says a word and it fills me with awe, excitement, and pride. These are times when he echoes a word out of the blue with no apparent intent- usually a word from hid iPad program such as “giraffe” or “strawberry.” He will say the word to himself over and over in a happy, sing-song cadence with a sweet little grin on his face and it fills up my heart. When I sing his word back to him his whole face lights up with pleasure and I feel there is nothing more right than this moment.
The take home message from this post? So-called “functional” speech is clearly not all it’s cracked up to be. 😉