I have found in my time as a speech therapist and in working in the homes of families who have children with disabilities that many, if not all, behavioral issues stem from struggles with communication. Maybe the child wants something but can’t say what. Perhaps it is something as simple as the irritation of a scratchy tag on the inside of their shirt but they simply can’t tell anyone. Maybe the child can make no sense of incoming information and so often lashes out. I believe that no child ever “chooses” to not talk and that every child can communicate. And I believe all parents desire to connect with their children. That’s why I do what I do. To try to facilitate that interaction between parents and children and to give children the sense of freedom and power that comes from successful communication.
Before becoming a speech therapist, I didn’t think all that much about the forms communication can take. Now, every time I do an assessment or sit in a session with a parent and child, I am watching everything. I may look like I am simply playing with your child, but really I am observing how they use their eyes and body to tell me things, what state they seem to be in physically, which toy or activity holds their interest today so that I can motivate them to work hard. I am trying to put together the puzzle of the child’s strengths and needs and how to creatively build on those strengths to address challenges.
I rely heavily on the input of parents. If there is one thing I want to tell caregivers, it is that YOU are the expert on your child. You not only have an intuitive understanding of their needs, you have the experiential knowledge to back that up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents say, “he’s crying because the sound of the toilet flushing outside the door freaks him out” or some such thing and I hadn’t even heard the offending sound. Parents, more often than not, know. And if there’s another thing I want to tell parents it is to trust your instincts. We live in a culture that reveres knowledge and expert opinions. We want professionals, whether it is to clean our carpet or work with our children. And who can blame us? In many cases professionals can make all the difference, even save lives. But while professionals may have training and expertise in a given subject area, that subject area is probably not your unique child. The caregiver is almost always that expert.
I would venture to guess that I have learned a lot more from every parent and child that I’ve worked with than they have learned from me. And I feel thrilled inside when I get to witness those hard-fought gains children make with the support of their parents. I consider it an incredible privilege to do what I can to support the parents who give so much to the children who work so hard.
Julie Swanson is a Speech Language Pathologist who lives with her husband and two adorable children in Montana. Besides being Jessi's good friend, she is also Jack's amazing speech therapist who works tirelessly to help our little guy communicate.