When I think of really listening, I don’t just think of hearing and understanding verbal speech. I think of all the ways to be receptive to communication. My son didn’t speak routinely until he was four years old, but I was always listening.
I learned to discern his fussy cry from his pained cry in a matter weeks, and sought the medical care he needed for infant reflux. I noticed how he covered his ears in church when the pipe organ played, and deduced the sound and sensation was all too much for him. I watched him gravitate toward toy cars and dinosaurs and understood he liked them.
Of course, hearing and understanding were not enough. I had to respond with appropriate action. My son, despite his young age and later diagnosis of autism, made efforts to communicate with me, to express pain and overload and pleasure. With limited tools, he made the attempt. It was my clear and obvious duty to make at least as much effort to understand him as he made to be understood. If I had not followed through, if I had not taken him away from things he cried about and brought him closer to things he cooed over, it would have taught him those methods of speaking to me didn’t work.
Parents of infants generally know this. They know crying means something and they try to divine the meaning in the wailing, and to address the thing the crying communicates – wetness or hunger or cold. Yet some parents of disabled children seem to forget this along the way. Forget that behavior can be communication. Forget how to truly listen.
I recently adopted a cat. He doesn’t speak English and he never will. He can’t sign or type or draw. He’s not even part of my species. Obviously he is able to communicate with me anyway. People readily accept the idea that meowing, purring, hissing, biting, hiding, kneading, and licking are all ways cats can communicate with humans.
Yet a disabled child who did not speak, sign, type or draw would be considered by many unable to communicate , or worse, unable to think. How can we assume so many of our own species can’t communicate without the spoken or written word when we know communication with other species who can’t speak or write is possible? How inhuman do we imagine non-speaking people to be? Communication is not a solo act. It’s something done together between “speaker” and “listener”, whether the communication takes the form of speech and hearing or not.
If your child has been diagnosed with a speech delay or impairment, take that as a reason to explore other ways of communicating. Expose your child and yourself to the different methods out there – flash cards and songs and sign language and smart phones. Remember that your child has been communicating with you since day one. Don’t let language barriers convince you communicating is impossible. Keep trying to find what works until you do. Your child will thank you for it, and you’ll be able to hear them.