Fishy’s Making Language Progress!
This is really exciting. On my latest visit, after being away from several weeks, Fishy’s grandma told me that he’s been making much more active attempts to communicate, including increased use of pointing and signing (though he still has a limited range of signs and tends to mix a few of them up) and lots of verbalization.
Fishy at one point had a speech therapist, who I never met (though I helped with the mouth-muscle exercises she prescribed), but she apparently made a lousy impression on the entire family, including Fishy himself. I only mention it, really, because Mommy told me that Fishy never vocalized in this therapist’s presence, so she had no way of knowing what she had to work with. And I was amazed, because Fishy is an absolute chatterbox with me.
Let me clarify that a bit: Fishy doesn’t have any verbal vocabulary. He has a narrow range of vocal sounds ranging from an open “ah” of varying volumes and durations to similar variations on a sound I’ll transcribe as “ehn”– not a speech sound in English, but the nasal sound that you get if you try to make an “nnnn” sound with your mouth open in a wide smile. He seems to use them primarily to express pleasure and excitement, and, increasingly, simply as a form of engaging someone socially.
I hold two kinds of conversations with Fishy. In the first, he babbles at me and I fill in all sorts of things I imagine he might want to talk about– “Did you have a good day at school? I bet you did! You learned lots of stuff, huh? You can show me later. How’s Mommy and Daddy and Baby Brother? I hear you’re very good with your Baby Brother. Bet you’re proud of him, hmmm? Is that a new toy? It looks like you really like it.”
For this, I take my cues from context and from his facial expressions. He still doesn’t have signs or actions that denote “yes” and “no,” but he certainly responds with emotional displays. If I say “Did you have a good day at school?” and get a huge grin, I follow it up with “Oh yes, you did!” If I get a blank look or (rare) a pout, I follow up with “Not so much, huh.” I am not reading his mind, or even translating/interpreting for him in any systematic sense, just trying to engage him with the sorts of topics I know he can relate to. He seems to enjoy this immensely.
(Related, but slightly different: when I know a specific thing Fishy is expressing — giving his gesture for “I’m excited,” signing +want,+ or pointing to a specific item– I always verbalize it, both so that he knows that I understood him and to help him share the information with others present.)
Second, we hold lengthy exchanges of sounds that have no specific meaning. Fishy says “Ah!” and “Ehn!” and I say them back at him, and we alternate, often varying the sounds a bit from one iteration to the next– “Ah” is followed by “Aaah” and “Aaaaaah.” Sometimes I mimic Fishy as closely as possible, sometimes I include new simple sounds– “Oh” and “Ba” and “Mmmm”– typical baby noises or variations on Fishy’s own vocalizations.
And here’s where it gets really exciting, because Fishy is starting to mimic me back. If I switch from “ah” to “ehn,” he may do so too. He’s very attentive to the other sounds I make, as well. “Mmmm” seems to fascinate him, and I’ve noticed this before.
This time, as we sat facing each other, I responded to his “ehn” with “mmm.” He watched me intently, and then narrowed his mouth a little and said “ehhnn.” I repeated “mmmm.” And he came back with a sound that was very nearly “nnnnn.” Of course, I praised him like crazy!
This is essentially the basis for a process ABA therapists and animal trainers refer to as “shaping”– rewarding successive approximations of a desired behavior. First you praise any attempt in the right direction, then slowly start requiring increasingly accurate attempts in order to get rewarded. The details of how to do this best do take a bit of work, but I’m not doing anything nearly so formal with Fishy. When he’s with me, he knows categorically that I’m always thrilled to see him try something new. And he rarely needs much encouragement– he’s very eager to learn.
His parents and therapists have decided that his speech therapy, at least for now, will be done via his ABA sessions, and apparently they’re going to work on teaching him the sound “ba” first. I can’t wait to hear him discover consonants!
But a different breakthrough happened that day in his ABA session. He adores toy animals, and we were playing with his big plastic barn. We prance the animals around, put them in and out of the barn, etc, and talk about it while we do it.
We got out the cow. “A cow says moo,” the therapist said cheerily. “Moo” I echoed. “Ah!” chimed in Fishy. “Mooooo” I repeated. Fishy looked me right in the eye and said something that sounded a lot more like “oooo” than I’ve ever heard him say before. His therapist and I looked up at each other in amazement. “That’s right!” we exclaimed simultaneously, “A cow says moo!”
I was… blown away. I’m sure every parent has these moments– a first word, a first step, a first smile– that just stop the world and make you want to jump for joy. But there’s a special added thrill in Fishy’s case because I don’t always know for sure if he will ever be able to do certain things until he does them. Every typically developing child will speak a first word. But with Fishy, I had no idea if he ever would, or if so, when. Now, while I still have no idea whether speech will (or should) ever become his primary mode of communication, I have the distinct sense that he will have a first spoken word. And that is something truly worth celebrating.