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The Bright Side

There is one, thankfully. But getting there is going to take a little explanation.

I haven’t blogged much about Ashul* this year because I’ve been worried about her and didn’t think it appropriate to discuss someone else’s child in those terms. The cause for concern has been her language development, specifically her expressive (spoken) language. Ashul hardly talks, and it’s increasingly been freaking me out.

Within a few months of her arrival in the US, it was clear to me and her preschool teachers that Ashul’s comprehension of English was progressing rapidly. Her fine and gross motor skills are above age-level, and she’s plenty bright. So even though she didn’t say much in English or Dinka, none of us were particularly concerned last year. We figured it would all come together this year in the Twos.

But it didn’t. As the other kids began chatting away with each other, Ashul remained mostly silent and therefore increasingly isolated. On a good morning, I’d get one or two words out of her besides “Simon”. On a bad morning, I’d hear nothing. As far as I can tell, her Dinka wasn’t much better–lots of little two-word descriptions or demands, but no real conversation. And while this seemed behind schedule but acceptable for a sequentially bilingual child at two or two-and-a-half, I hit the panic button when she turned three this January.

By three, even the bilingual kids are speaking in full sentences. More importantly, three-year-olds use language to express wants, needs, ideas, and questions. Language is no longer a stand-alone milestone, but rather is the vehicle for many other cognitive, social, and emotional developments. I worried that the longer Ashul stayed silent, the more she’d risk falling behind in these areas, too.  And in case that wasn’t enough, there was the question of how to address these concerns with friends who do not necessarily share my cultural expectations of child development.

Bringing up a possible developmental delay is an ultra-fine needle to thread in any case, but more so when one is also concerned about overstepping bounds or appearing insensitive. I finally settled on a course of action that began with my chatting informally with a speech language therapist.  For the record, I’m leaving a lot of things unsaid here because, again, she’s not my child, and also because I’m no expert in child development.

My chat with the therapist was very fruitful and reassuring, as it gave me some ideas of how worried I should be (less than I was), other ideas of how to encourage Ashul’s speech and/or vocalization, and book recommendations for further advice I could bring to her teachers and parents.

And then yesterday, after a week’s absence due to allergies (hers) and illness (mine and Matt’s), Ashul showed up bright and eager at my door and talked more than I’ve ever heard her. She didn’t suddenly leap to full sentences, but she did label things, repeat words we all said, ask Simon a few two-word sentences, and talk to herself and sing to herself quite a bit. She vocalized in some form or other for the vast majority of the morning, and she directed her vocalizations at me, Simon, and Matt. Even her play was more sophisticated and interactive.

The change was dramatic, and it struck me as a very promising sign that Ashul is simply a late bloomer and not facing an organic problem. But it gets better. Her daily report from school yesterday included the note “Ashul talked much more today.” As she’s most reticent with her teachers, that really gladdened my heart. Better still, when I mentioned this to her mother, she told me that Ashul has been chatty all week and that everyone has noticed a big difference. “We thought she was just the girl who didn’t talk, but last week she talked and talked and talked—too much.”

Marvelous! This admission gave me an inroad to express my own past concern and to begin discussing things I’ve read and heard about how to help Ashul along now that she’s looking ready and interested. And best of all, a couple of the things the speech language therapist suggested I try worked.

For example, two weeks ago when Ashul pointed at her doorbell to indicate she wanted a lift so she could ring it, I tried to cajole her into saying “bell” by making it a precondition. It ended with her in tears and me feeling lousy. Yesterday, I held her up and sang about how the bell goes “ding dong ding”. When I then asked her how the bell goes, she smiled and sang “ding dong ding” right back to me. Interestingly, this tiny step yielded an emotional reward, too. Ashul was so happy with the game and her ability to participate that she was unusually open and affectionate with me. It felt like all her walls were coming down at the same time.

The other tool in my box is Simon. Ashul talks more to peers than adults, so the therapist suggested I bring Simon on board to engage in more speech. He understands his role, and he’s eager and willing to fill it. Maybe a little too eager, in fact. When we were chatting about colors yesterday and Ashul seemed not to know the word “red”, Simon helped out by lifting up a red pepper and saying, “Look Shu, it’s thith.” “Thith” is Dinka for “red”; we asked her mother about Dinka color words a few weeks ago, and Simon loves trotting out thith and mangok (green) whenever he can. When that didn’t work, he moved over to German.

We’ll have to work on his technique a bit. So that was yesterday’s bright spot. I’ve dialed down my alert status to yellow, I’m really looking forward to having Ashul back Thursday morning for some more song and games, and I have a good feeling that this spring, Ashul will be blossoming right alongside the trees and flowers that are making me so miserable.

*This is, of course, not her actual name. I’m talking about my friend Gabriel’s oldest daughter, but I don’t want this post to pop up in a search engine so I’m not using it or naming her mother.

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