Speak when you are spoken to

Shaina’s checkup with her neurologist last week went amazingly. Dr T was thrilled at how well Shaina followed instructions, correctly placed (most) puzzle pieces and drew a “person”. If you follow Shaina’s Instagram, you know she successfully shot a hoop before leaving the doctor’s office. We were ecstatic. The only thing she wouldn’t do for Dr T was talk. She tossed out one meek “thank you” on her way out. It’s the same at every consultation. We try to convince the doctor that Shaina’s speaking has improved, but Shaina refuses to display her talents. I’ve taken to showing Dr T videos to prove that Shaina does use words. 

Shaina has nothing against her doctor. She doesn’t talk to most people. It’s not that Shaina is shy or unfriendly- to the contrary- she is just (mostly) nonverbal. I understand why she remains quiet. Imagine trying to chat when all you can muster up is three words at a time. Maximum. You’d also find it easier to smile and wave.

Nonverbal children can be delightful, affectionate and playful. People tend to make two mistakes around nonverbal children. Our worst oversight is that we believe they don’t understand what we’re saying because they don’t respond. Let me tell you, Shaina understands everything. Like any kid her age, she’s out of her depth when the adults discuss budgets or elections. But, she picks up whatever her peers do. Emotional cues? Shaina is an expert in that field. She smiles silently and lulls us into the belief that she is oblivious. If need be, she will chuck a book across the room to let us know she disapproves of the conversation or will barrel into our ribs if we say something that embarrasses her.

Our second mistake is that we talk down to her. We’re used to babies who smile and don’t answer back. So, adults assume that any child who doesn’t reply should be addressed like a baby. Without realising it, we modulate our tone and dumb down the conversation when we speak to nonverbals. 

They don’t like it. 

“Talk to me like a one-year-old, and I’m not talking back”. 

Before last Pesach, I blogged about Shaina being the Child Who Does Not Know How To Ask at the Seder. I shared how Shaina had taught me the beauty of a child without misgivings about life. As Pesach approaches this year, I realise that the Pesach Seder refuses to leave that child unattended. The Hagaddah says, “As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate conversation.”

Our parents grew up in the “Don’t speak until you are spoken to” generation. Nonverbal children need to be spoken to in a way that invites them to speak. 

We have been privileged to receive guidance from the brilliant minds of Jerusalem’s Feuerstein Institute. Recently, Chana, one of their senior therapists, reminded us that if we want Shaina to respond, we should speak to her as we would to a neurotypical child.

Sifiso, Shaina’s beloved carer for the past two years, did not study at Feuerstein or read the Haggadah, yet she intuitively understood this principle. She talks to Shaina like a peer- and Shaina uses more vocabulary in response to her than she does with anyone else.

Nobody enjoys a one-way conversation. If we get no feedback, we move on to chat with someone more engaging. Shaina’s school friends are remarkably patient and talk to her even when all they get in return is a smile. She loves their interactions. By contrast, Shaina tires quickly of most adult conversations- not because she doesn’t like the people, but because most of us don’t know how to invite her to talk. Not everyone can hold a conversation with a nonverbal person. Fewer people can entice a nonverbal child into dialogue. We try to remember that Shaina only speaks when she is spoken to; not spoken at.

Come to think of it, I think we’re all that way.

If you invite her, she’ll talk to you.

Published by rabbiarishishler

Husband, father and rabbi of Chabad of Strathavon in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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