I brought 4-year-old son to get a haircut just before school began this year. My son hates the loud buzzing sound of the shaver and panics at the sound of the scissor blades trimming the hair near his ears so this was going to be difficult.
During this haircut in particular, things were going better than normal. I’d asked the hairdresser to only do a quick trim with scissors, just enough to keep it long but prevent any mullet-style overgrowth. As she trimmed, she asked my son about school.
“What grade are you going to be in?” “Um, pee-tay,” he responded. “What?” “Pee. Tay,” he said again, annunciating his words a little harder. She looked at me, helpless. “He’s starting pre-K,” I piped up, smiling at him. “He’s really excited. Aren’t you, Cal?”
As she asked my son questions she turned to me for a translation and say something like, “How’d you understand that?” or “How can you tell what he’s saying? Oh my God, seriously, how do you even understand what he’s saying? It’s so hard.”
“He has a speech delay,” I finally said. “But he understands you perfectly.”
He has excellent comprehension and a huge vocabulary but has a speech delay that causes him to mix up letter sounds when he speaks.
“Soccer” becomes “yokker,” which doesn’t seem all that hard to comprehend, but sometimes he mixes up sounds in the middle of words too. At Target, he asks for a “toocah” (sticker), and at McDonald’s he wants an “ambarter appy meaw” (hamburger happy meal).
I don’t blame people for misunderstanding, he motions for me to bend down, and puts his little arms around my neck and says the word slowly right next to my ear.
“What’s the sound at the beginning,” I asked, the first time he said “yokker.”“Sssss,” he hissed proudly.“Oh, sssoccer,” I said, enunciating the “s” sound. “Can you try that? Hiss at the beginning?” “Sssssoccer,” he said back. This is the day-to-day with my boy.
I spend every day with him so I know the quirks of his language, the pattern of “incorrect” sounds he makes. I know to listen for context and repeat back the words I do recognize until I’ve gotten the gist of his meaning.
The hairdresser laughing about how hard it is to understand my son is something that happens all the time, with people from all walks of life.
Our relationship is my entertaining roadshow. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and gaze at the mother talking to her ‘defective’ little boy.” They prod me unashamedly about his medical history and if we’ve seen a doctor and if he’s been evaluated.
He works with a speech-language pathologist three days each week, and his regular teacher is trained in working with kids with developmental delays as well.
The hardest part of having a child with a speech delay is not the delay itself, but that my son is a great, loving, and energetic little kid with an entire world inside of him.
Yes, I will agree, my son is hard to understand at times. But that doesn’t make him, or any other child with a developmental delay, less real. And the way you speak to and about kids like my son has an impact, even if they can’t express it.
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