A Wave and a “Bye-Bye”: My Journey with a Late-Talker




Yesterday, Kate had a big moment. She waved and said “bye” to a friend.

For the first time. Ever.

I can’t even begin to tell you what that felt like. All the joy and hope. All the knowing that yes, we were on the right path, that we would get there regardless of how long it takes. But really, just this deep, profound love for Kate, and for myself.

Now, for those of you with normal developing kids, this may seem like no big deal. You’ve coached your kids on waving hello and goodbye, giving grandparents hugs and quietly tolerating those to-big smooches on their cheeks. They smile and follow along because you asked them to. (Maybe. Most of the time.) But your kids also get that this is what happens when someone says hello. Or goodbye. It’s part of this social expectation that they learned from watching you, and they want to emulate that.

And sure, Kate’s waved before, like when she was Eric’s age and just turned one. It’s a super-awesome game, actually. I mean, wave your hand and these adults will do it back. Wow! What power, right? But after a short while this waving thing shifts from a game to something more social. An adult waves to a child… and suddenly that adult’s attention (and the attention of any other nearby adult) turns onto the child with a single, unspoken command: now you wave.

Which was totally not what my very introverted child wanted.

So, Kate stopped waving. Completely. Until last week.

The direct reason Kate started waving again, well, I’m not really sure. I think it was a mix of Eric discovering this fun game of waving (which then causes adults to wave back) but also comfort that grew from me spending direct, one-on-one play with her. For Kate, for her temperament, she needs to feel safe and secure, in control. Perhaps just watching Eric she realized it was safe for her to wave as well, but it was also more than that. It was part of the social game she’d watched Mommy and Daddy play, and she was now ready to try it too.

Kate wanted to join in this social game. It was a decision she made, all on her own. I’ve never pressured her to wave or smile or any of those little nuances (super introverted, remember?). I’ve let her be and trusted that she’d join when she was ready.

But I’m still surprised. And still filled with joy. I mean, this path, the one we’re on, really is right for us. When you have a child who doesn’t talk, or in my case now talks very little (woohoo, words!!), it’s like you’re playing this constant guessing game. It’s like you’ve constantly got a hand on your child’s emotional pulse. How are they feeling? What do they want? Do they, or don’t they, understand what’s going on? I mean, you don’t get a lot of direct ‘insight’ into their little heads because they can’t tell you.

But they do, actually.

It comes in these little, tiny snippets of insight. And often when you get those little glimpses you also get a glimpse of just how far we have to go until we’ve reached “normal.”

You see, the thing about late-talkers is they don’t just have a language delay. There’s often a social delay as well, and that makes sense. This isn’t just about Kate not talking. It’s about communicating in all forms and in the many, many different levels that we do. For example, the timing of when you wave and when you say goodbye is important. It doesn’t count when the person is out of sight and in their car!

So much of our relationships and interactions as human beings revolves around communication… and certainly communication through language. If your late-talker has a harder time processing what’s being said to her, she’s going to have a hard time figuring out how to play tag or ‘salon’ when her friend asks her to play.

As a parent, I intuitively knew this, but it didn’t actually click until we started seeing the same group of kids routinely. They got to know Kate and she got to know them (or, recognized them and would smile, which is her way of saying hello). Also, it became clearer when Kate was around other kids her age, now reaching 3 1/2, that their complexity of play and the nuances in their conversations had jumped through the roof. I mean, a year ago Kate could get away with just being called “shy” or “quiet.” You wouldn’t really know there was anything wrong. Now, though, it’s pretty obvious when she does make sound and her special word play that she’s not in the “normal” category.

That’s when it dawned on me that this journey we’re on wasn’t about Kate not talking. It was actually about so much more.

Kate understanding a friend’s words to get off the bottom of the slide so she could go down. Kate’s friend saying, “You’re excited but don’t push me. I don’t like it.” And me, as a parent, finding a way to guide Kate through these social interactions in a peaceful way (and not like the dictator with lots of rules that was familiar to me growing up).

Oh, and I need to do all this in a way that Kate could understand.


Try explaining an abstract phrase like, “that’s not nice,” to a kid with language issues!

It’s tricky and I’m still figuring it out. (So parents, please be patient with me… I’m not only in the process of rewiring my own upbringing but also wrestling with this guidance and understanding thing and how to actually do it.) But what I’ve come to realize is that I can’t force Kate to open her mouth, push sound out, and say, “bye-bye.”

I can’t.

I’ve got zero control here. Zero. Reminds me, in fact, of those potty training days.

All I can do is show her and guide her through my own actions, to do it with a smile and in a patient way. Well, I can strive for patience. Believe me when I say I’m as human as the next person and screaming tantrums in the morning, before coffee, is soooo not okay. Which is really to bad that those mornings Kate doesn’t seem to understand this concept. Ugh. Words and language would be good on those days.

Parenting is not an easy road. Parenting a child with delays is even more challenging (not to mention when said parent is trying that whole rewiring thing I was talking about). And yet… every day I’m seeing little glimpses, little signs of progress and that, yes, we are actually moving forward.

And if I’m going to be really honest here, those first little glimpses aren’t coming from Kate. They’re coming from me.

My journey. My desire to change to the kind of parent I want to be.

Patience. Acceptance. Trust.

That is definitely my journey.

I’d actually wanted to write about my whole first month of being Kate’s speech partner rather than the therapist we were paying a ton of money to and seeing little progress (and yes, I will still write about it), but honestly after hearing from other late-talker parents, and heck, even my decision to break away from traditional therapy and just do it on my own… I discovered this isn’t actually about Kate.

It’s about me.

My willingness to trust in Kate.

My willing to trust in myself.

Acceptance. Constant love. Patience.

Yes, Kate waved and said bye to her friend. Yes, Kate willingly gave another boy a present at the gift exchange (instead of tearing into herself because really, that’s what young kids do). Yes, Kate lovingly touched her brother on the head to show she cares for him. But she only got to this point because of me. Because of the work I’d already done within myself.

For Kate to improve with her speech, she needs to feel comfortable and safe with language. But before the language can even come, she first needs to feel comfortable and safe with me. Secure. Attached. Not sensing that all-encompassing black fear only a parent can know when they’re terrified for their children and their future. I was in that darkness for those first couple months, but once I started finding information, that there was such a thing as natural late-talkers and yes, they could be perfectly normal little kids otherwise, and I started taking my freedom back. I starting taking back my children and all their beautiful little quirks and uniqueness.

Who gives a shit when Kate starts talking? Because seriously, right now she’s happy, smiling, and growing into her language at her pace. We took care of the physical, ‘is she ok,’ doctor assessment and now it’s just about her development and when she’s good and ready to start trusting in words.

Hers, and mine.

But I know many other parents aren’t at this place yet, this sense of peace and acceptance, and that’s okay. I hope if I share my journey it might shed some light on how you can find yours.

Because your journey will be different from mine.

This really isn’t about how I’m helping Kate as her speech partner, and frankly, there are professionals out there who can do it a hundred times better than I (I highly recommend the book, Play to Talk, by James MacDonald and Pam Stoika). But really, this is about my struggle to find this peace and acceptance, and one I’m still working on. I’m not fully there yet, but I’m getting there.

So I’ll be writing a series of posts about how I got this place, and also how I’ve been working with Kate instead of trusting in the ‘professionals’ to do all the work for me. We’ll see where this goes, but from what I’ve seen in myself and what I’ve heard from other parents of late-talkers, the best gift we can give our children is ourselves. To being right there, patient and aware, and above all, trusting in them.

I let go of our speech therapist a month ago to be Kate’s primary speech partner. I was nervous and afraid because I’m just a mom (with a one-year-old boy in tow). I’m not some expert who’s trained and worked with speech delayed kids before. I’m just me. Still a bit sleep-deprived, getting through my Christmas checklists and the usual loads of laundry and yet, yesterday Kate waved and said bye to her friend.

That’s such a simple thing and yet so very, very big.

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