It’s one of those questions that parents of non or pre-verbal children are asked over and over again.
I heard it again recently, when I called up to enquire about the possibility of Wee Girl going on an activity camp specifically for children with speech and language difficulties. A bit cheeky as the minimum age is five and she’s only four and a half, but don’t ask, don’t get. So I explained the situation, diagnosis of autism, pre-verbal, blah blah blah, and:
“So what does pre-verbal mean?” I was asked. “She doesn’t talk at all?”
“So how do you know what she wants?”
And I was stuck. Because how do I know what she wants? Usually I just sort of guess. Or anticipate her needs. Very often if she’s able to, she’ll go and get what she wants herself and we have encouraged her to be independent.
Thirsty? She gets herself a drink of water. Needs the loo? She strips off and takes herself to the toilet.
Raising a pre-verbal child presents many challenges, but so far, day to day, I have found that knowing what she wants is not one of them.
But beneath all of that, beneath the irritation of having to answer a question that is fundamentally meaningless there’s a mile-thick layer of guilt.
So asking me that question feels a bit like a slap in the face. You might as well be asking, “Why haven’t you taught her how to communicate? Why are you such a terrible parent?”
Because shouldn’t I have done more? Shouldn’t I have persisted with Makaton? Or taught her how to use visual symbols? Or done any one of a myriad of things that seemed at the time unnecessary and overwhelmingly hard?
But her needs are dealt with. Her communication skills are improving and every day she finds more ways to show us what she wants. The question ‘How do you know what she wants’ is asked out of ignorance, out of a lack of understanding of what it means to raise a child who cannot talk.
Think about it: would you ask the same of the parents of a six-month baby? A one-year old? The pre-verbal stage just persists with some children longer than others, that’s all. You find ways to figure it out. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it isn’t, but the same is true of any child at some point in their life, even after they’ve started talking.
So how am I able to know what my pre-verbal child wants? Because she bloody well tells me, that’s how.