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The Question I Wish You Wouldn’t Ask About My Special-Needs Child

“Is he talking yet?”

For years, it was a question a friend of mine asked whenever we spoke. She lives far away and rarely sees our family. My son, Max, had a stroke at birth that resulted in cerebral palsy. Despite doctors’ gloomy predictions, he walked at age 3. But due to the part of his brain that was damaged, speech is a real challenge. So when I was on the phone with this friend and she’d pose that “yet” question, it got to me.

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When you’re the parent of a kid with special needs, you desperately want them to hit the milestones that other kids naturally do. You do everything within your power, typically getting your child a whole lot of therapies (physical therapy for gross-motor skills, occupational therapy for fine-motor skills, speech therapy, ABA therapy for kids with autism, therapy yada yada) and pushing for more.

Hearing the word “yet” can make you even more anxious. 

You’re already doing the best you can to help your child and people wanting to know when and if your child will do something — no matter how well meant — unintentionally puts extra pressure on you. “Yet” is also a painful reminder that your child is lagging or lacking, and that’s the last thing parents of kids with disabilities need.

And then, there’s this reality: While you desperately hope that therapies will help, there is no guarantee. As I’ve learned, progress partly involves modeling and teaching a kid what to do — but he also has to be ready, physically and cognitively. Asking “Is he crawling/standing/walking/talking/reading/whatever yet?” assumes that the child will someday do those things. As parents of special needs children well know, our kids may never be able to do certain tasks or activities, at least in the traditional sort of ways. Accepting this is part of our own development as parents. Max has a lot of trouble with articulation and often uses a speech app on his iPad to communicate. If, when he was a tot, I could have looked into the future and seen that would be his main mode of speaking, I would have been sad. Now though, I am eternally grateful that the technology exists and gives him a voice.

Still, Max is determined to keep trying to say words. Consonants are hard for him, especially the initial ones, and so “Ohmmy” I am. I love that word, one I was never sure I’d hear. Sure, it’s not perfect, but another thing special-needs parents learn to accept is that perfection is not something to aim for and that there are many, many ways to talk, to walk, to think, to live, to thrive.

After a while, when my friend would ask “Is he’s talking yet?” I’d say, “He talks in his own way.” The last time she asked me that, I finally said, “I know you mean well, but I’d appreciate if you didn’t ask that question. Max does things on his own timeline and he does them in his Max way.” She apologized and the question hasn’t come up again.

So please, if you know a parent of a kid with special needs, don’t ask them about the “yets.” We know you mean well, but the most heartening thing is to acknowledge what a child is doing. Because our kids with disabilities have all sorts of abilities, if only people would see.

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