The Dreaded Question… Socialization: My Journey with a Late-Talker

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The idea for this blog post first tickled me after I posted pictures from Kate’s 4th birthday party to a group of parents of late-talkers. I was surprised at the many comments I got… about Kate’s smile and how wonderful and happy she was playing with the other kids. As if… there was this mix of joy and shock that yes, this is possible for our kids.

The play with others.

In a way, it surprised me because Kate’s running and playing, her easily moving into this physical play of the park, that’s normal for me now. I sometimes forget to see that joy and wonder, of how far we’ve come and that this, this is where we are now. Our new normal.

But it wasn’t where we started.

And, if I’m really honest with myself (and I’m doing my best here), this very question, this concern, was on my mind from the very beginning.

What about socialization?

What about play and interacting with other kids when you don’t have words?

Okay. So maybe this wasn’t my first concern, at least not at the beginning because, up until around age 3, kids don’t need to be social. Not really. Actually, they’re actually pretty self-centered with their toys and food, and truthfully, their whole world is all about them! And that’s just the developmental phases they go through (I’m very, very much paraphrasing here my understanding from all the many books I’ve read). My point being, yes, get them out and playing around kids, and they might play with them. Or they might just sit down in the sand and play next to the other kids in the sand.

That parallel play is huge. It’s one of those super, itsy-bitsy steps to acquiring language, and it’s something that most other parents aren’t even aware of (or how important that side-by-side play is).

But then… something happens.

A shift, really.

At some point, I think when your kid hits three… when other kids start to look at your silent (or babbling) late-talker differently. They expect them to understand. They expect to get a response.

Suddenly, the park play of running up and down the slide, chasing back and forth, grows more complicated. There’s rules and ideas. They talk to your late-talker like they do with any other kid. And your late-talker…

Doesn’t understand.

Or if they do, they can’t respond.

It’s heart-breaking and scary to watch. You see those other, well-meaning kids, get frustrated or impatient or indifferent. They might not say something kind, or maybe they shrug and walk away.

In your heart, you know everything is fine with your child (well… if not fine it’s a progression that you know is right for your particular child… he or she will talk… when they’re good and ready). But still, you stand there, at a loss of what to do. Do you intervene? Do you become the voice for your child? Is this becoming a helicopter parent?

Or do you stand back and let kids figure it out?

Except… your child is only three or four or five and most kids haven’t learned (certainly not mastered) the tools to handle conflict well. So they do need some amount of guidance.

Oh. And your kid also can’t talk.

Not to mention all the advice everyone imparts on you on what you should do for your late-talking child, such as constantly talking to them about everything and doing it nonstop. (Seriously people? Are you telling me that when others do that to you, as a grown adult, that you don’t tune them out??) Or how about getting your kids around others their same age as that’s a great way to learn. Well… I’m not going to say no here. Again, I’m no expert, I’m just a parent. And sure there are kids who learn language better this way, every kid is different after all, but what I can tell you is what I’ve seen firsthand (and what my common sense has put together). The hardest time for Kate has been with kids her age or close to it.

And why’s that?

Because they don’t have the patience for her.

Which… makes sense. There still little kids themselves! They certainly don’t have the patience to sit there and wait while Kate figures out how to explain what she wants, with nonverbal cues. Or the patience while Kate puts together their words in her head, like a little puzzle, and figures out what they’re saying, so then she can react with her own response.

Oh. And let’s not forget another important fact here…

Kids around her age are still learning to talk themselves!

So when they’re sitting there, stringing words together, like a big sentence that never seems to stop, with more ‘the’s’ thrown in that a poor grammar checker could handle before exploding… that’s supposed to help my kid to talk?

And this advice, it comes from everyone.

And I do mean everyone.

Old lady pushing her cart of groceries behind you? Check. Mom out for a run who notices your kid doesn’t talk right? Check. Pediatrician who’s only looking at her checklist of ASD red-flags? Check.

And meanwhile, you’re scared.

Frightened, even.

And no one, not a single person with their lists and helpful advice they’d read on the internet in some study or heard from someone they know who’s also a speech therapist. And I suppose, that includes me here since I’m going to tell you about my journey with Kate.

But what I’m going for, hoping for, is to ease your mind as parents.

Yes, get yourself the best team to support your child (who’s different from mine). And that team goes from everyone to a loving spouse, grandparents, siblings, and a pediatrician who I truly hope is willing to listen to what *you* have to say and not just some checklist they’re reading off of. (You can probably guess that we ditched our first pediatrician and are looking for someone actually willing to be part of our team.) Build a team that fits for you and your family, and then… just provide opportunities for the socialization to grow.

For your child to play and have fun. With others.

I don’t see these as opportunities for my child to learn words from another, but… just the chance to play. Play in comfortable settings. Play that will allow for someone a little different than the normal child.

And that socialization we’re also so worried about?

Truly, it will happen.

Naturally.

In a natural way that will fit your child.

We are very fortunate that Kate is an easy-going child. We don’t have behavioral problems or tantrums (more than the normal, anyway), even with no language. She’s found a way to communicate and I’m in tune enough with her that this frustration, which can be quite common for late-talkers, isn’t really an issue. I say this all here as a disclaimer because regardless of what I tell you about our journey (and specifically, Kate’s) it will look different for you. This is especially true if you have a child who does have frustrations and who does have behavioral issues you’re working through. My hat is off to you parents and all I can say is keeping going at it. Keep your smile and love on and you’ll find your way, even if it’s slower or looks different than the rest of us. You are certainly not alone.

Now, when it comes to this socialization fear, I already had one leg up on the problem. Before we knew Kate was a late-talker, we’d decided to homeschool. Or I should say, I was very interested in the idea, especially looking back at my life, what I learned along the way, and where I ended up. Well, one of the first questions that jumped to my mind about homeschooling was socialization. I mean, that’s what I always heard about homeschooling. That socialization was the big, huge fear:

Don’t send your kids school? Well, you’re gonna have a socialization issue on your hands.

And what I do when I get faced with some big, unknown, scary question?

I read.

A lot.

So, I did. And in my research I realized that this… this isn’t actually an issue. I mean, it can be if you sit around in your house all day and never get outside, never get your kids around other human beings of all ages, shapes, and sizes. But if you make an effort, if get out of your little shell and try to find a community, you totally can. Kids want to interact with each. They want to play. They want to be together. And then so long as you’re there, so long as you have persistence and a willingness to put yourself out there and try, it’ll happen.

For your kids.

For you too.

But for some reason, when I first started talking with my speech pathologist and coach (she coaches me and I’m the one who works naturally with Kate throughout the day… and even night since a parent’s duties don’t stop when the clock hits 5:30), all that common sense, all that I learned about homeschooling and the natural process of being social, just went out the window. Because my fear had a good, good hold of me.

I asked our speech pathologist about socialization and about what I could do to help Kate.

She asked about the parallel play and I said, yes, Kate did that.

And then… she told me not worry. That it would happen and for some kids, normal developing ones, parallel play can naturally take a few years to develop.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

Oh, I totally didn’t listen.

I did worry.

And I did have many sad moments when kids said mean things to Kate because she couldn’t understand. How they’d exclude her from play or whisper behind her back. Call her baby.

It broke my heart.

I cried.

But I learned too. I learned how to stand up for her. To be her voice. To guide her and try to explain what another kid might want of her. As Kate’s receptive language as improved, so too has her play. How she’s able to respond faster when someone asks her something, like hold a bag or to run, but only run when someone says, “Go!”

But… how did this actually happen?

How did we go from moments of her being told, in a mean, unkind way to, “not stand there” because “we don’t want you here?”

Moving from that… to a place of joy and smiles?

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Again, I had to grow myself. I had to learn to be Kate’s voice. I told friends, who I felt comfortable and safe with, how I felt. They gave me the sympathy and support I needed, to know that these were my friends and they cared. That they would take steps to teach their kids about Kate and her language delay. And that helped give me the resolve to not give up.

And then, I switched my approach.

I realized, for us, that when one group of kids grew very close, they weren’t as welcoming to someone different. Someone like Kate. At least, not without some amount of parental involvement and explanation to teach.

I wasn’t comfortable with that particular group, so I tried another.

When that one started getting big again, I switched to another, all the while hoping and believing we’d find our place. And I kept working at it. Kept talking with parents and when I saw a bond developing, I made an effort to compliment and thank this mom for how kind her daughter was to Kate.

And we finally found our place in our all-age park day. This is the one where you’ve got teens there and the tweens and the ones reaching double-digits, and then a handful of younger ones like my Kate and Eric.

It was this group where I saw Kate shine.

The kids her age weren’t there in the large numbers, and that was better for her. She made friends with older kids who saw she was different and asked me questions. They were curious. They liked playing with her and she liked playing with them. Then there are times when these friends weren’t around, so she’d shadow some older boys, literally mirror what they were doing (with a fake sword) and sit down right beside them.

And they tolerated her. She wasn’t bothering them (or they would have left, or I’d have stepped in).

Because these park days were working so well for us I started my own weekly meet-up. Every Friday I welcome all ages of kids to go and explore and play in nature. It’s at different locations, though there are repeats. And by doing this we’ve met more friends and Kate is in a place where she’s comfortable. Play dates at home with toys didn’t’ work for us, certainly not with kids around her age. But running? Playing at the tide pools? Splashing?

She can do that.

In fact, she loves it.

And every week, we do it again and again. She’s now seeing these same kids from week to week. She’s seeing these moms from week to week as well. She’s no longer hesitant about going to our blanket and pulling our snacks from the bag like she first was. She’s runs right in.

Comfort and control is huge for her, and I’ve kept at it so we could get to this place.

We are an introverted family and it wasn’t long before I realized that large group settings wouldn’t work for Kate. Even at her party, with all the wonderful friends she had, who she knew and enjoyed, she would break off and play with three or four at a time. Small groups. She followed where her comfort led, and this whole time, I’ve been listening.

Listening to her.

What works. What doesn’t. Who she plays easily and well with, who she doesn’t.

Now, when I show her pictures of our play days, or mention the names of some of her favorite friends, she smiles. She recognizes their names and faces. She wants to see them. When we briefly saw some friends at Disneyland and they left to do their own thing, Kate was sad. She said, “no.”

She wanted to stay with them.

And when we went to a recent Nature and Play day and I watched as she sat with another girl, and helped her build a sand castle, there was an ease and comfort in their play. Her friend was patient, and when needed, I stepped in to explain. When her friend told Kate to “hold the bag so I can put rocks in it?”

Kate took the bag. Without hesitation.

She understood.

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And for those with late-talkers, especially with receptive delays, that’s huge. Her reaction, so natural, without any pause… it’s big.

But so is her smile when she sees her friends. Or she sees any kids at the tide pools like we did just this weekend, how she wanted to go up and splash them and play. Just as she did with her friends.

Comfort.

I’ve done everything I could to set the stage for her. Tried play dates at our home with different kids, different ages. Gone to different park days with our homeschool groups, and just kept trying. And while we tried, I kept working with her at home. I kept learning how to be her voice. She kept growing, maturing. And so did I. Then one day, in between all our smiles and my excitement, telling Sean what Kate said or did with one kid or another, until one day, this is the new normal I woke up to.

I’m still amazed by it. Still surprised. Still filled with such joy.

And I wanted to let the other parents out there know, parents who are new on this journey with their young children, or kids who are Kate’s age and haven’t reached this same social level as Kate:

You will get there.

So long as you keep your heart open, so long as keep listening to your child.

What worked for us won’t necessarily work for you. But if you keep at it, you will know when you’re on the road to something special. Maybe it’s a place. Maybe it’s a person with the right kind of temperament. Maybe it’s a wonderful older child who’s willing to come over and play with your late-talker.

But you’ll know it when you see it. And honestly, our kids are learning more about socialization than even we know… because they want to learn.

And, they are.

Trust me. They are.

If you’re willing to trust them. If you’re willing to listen.

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