On speech problems and learning from life’s hurdles


Ben Tanzer


ReaderEssay What are your concerns?” the woman doing the speech assessment for our almost-3-year old son, Myles, asks.

“That he’s not finishing his words,” we say, “and that he might grow frustrated when other children can’t understand him.”

“Does he comprehend your questions and requests?”

“Yes, if we ask him to get a diaper, he knows what to do.”

“What percentage of his words do you understand?”

“Maybe 50 percent for me,” I say. “And 65 percent for me,” my wife, Debbie, says.

“Has he had many earaches?” the woman asks.

“Maybe six,” we say.

“OK,” she says.

She’s taking notes. I’m not sure whether we are saying too much or too little. Nor am I sure if we are saying the right things, much less whether we are saying them in the right way. 

“Does he know the difference between boys and girls?” she asks.

We don’t know. We’ve never asked him. Why haven’t we asked? We’re not sure. We’re not good parents.

The woman shifts her attention to Myles, playing with him and asking him questions. Even though he’s responsive, I find myself continually wanting to help him with the things he cannot say. It reminds me of watching Myles struggle to share with other children. It is easy to intervene at those times, but am I supposed to? And if so, how quickly?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it is not clear that I ever will.

Hearing underwater

“He has strong language skills,” the woman says. “He knows words, and he understands what you’re asking him to do, but he is struggling to close his words, and I too am concerned that he might become frustrated in social situations.”

“Would you recommend speech therapy?” we ask.

“I would.”

“What might have caused this?” we ask. “What could we have done differently?”

“I’m not sure,” she says. “A child who speaks like this would have no matter what. It might have something to do with the earaches, though.”

“The earaches,” we say. “Why?” We are thinking about all the times we didn’t realize he had one.

“It’s like he’s been hearing you underwater when you have been speaking to him,” she says.

We find out Myles needs to have a hearing test. This had not been discussed during the assessment, though, and we wonder whether we should be concerned. A hearing test for a child his age is a big deal, isn’t it?

I don’t want to be worried, nor do I want to be shallow, but I do want Myles to be fine, and I want him to do whatever he will do as unencumbered as possible.  

We go to the hearing test. We are led into a soundproof room with a big window. On either side of the window are speakers with stuffed animals on top of them, one a gorilla with a drum, the other a teddy bear. The audiologist stands on one side of the window looking in on us, and Myles sits on Debbie’s lap facing the window in a chair in front of me.

I begin to feel sick, and I think back to when Debbie took the nucleofold test during her pregnancy with Myles. As we sat there and the doctor slowly explained what the test might predict, I wanted to grab him and insist that he tell us something immediately or I would be forced to punch him in the face.

And that’s how I feel now, waiting for the test to start, and waiting for some news—tell us something, and do so quickly. I just can’t bear this.

Cause for celebration

The test starts and the sounds begin. There are different tones, pitches and volumes, and Myles catches every one of them: high, low, left and right. He says “there” and points in the appropriate direction each time he identifies where he has heard something. Myles’ responses prompt the corresponding stuffed animal to jump up and down, or clap its hands, actions I am repeatedly tempted to do myself.

After the test is over, we are told Myles’ hearing is fine, and that such tests are standard in cases like this. We breathe sighs of relief and cover his face with kisses.

We find a speech therapist who has a big smile and lots of energy. Myles takes to her immediately. Initially, as I watch them interact, I am embarrassed to say that I feel sad that Myles already has a hurdle to overcome—not as bad as the hurdles other kids are facing, and not a hurdle people don’t overcome unscarred and content—but a hurdle nonetheless, and the first one so soon in what will be a life full of hurdles that we cannot protect him from.

A funny thing happens as the sessions continue, though. Myles begins to blossom, not just using more words and phrases, but closing more words as well. While this alone is worth celebrating, I am also struck by the fact that not only can’t we protect Myles from the various hurdles he will encounter, but maybe that’s something I worry too much about.

We all grow by overcoming the hurdles we stumble upon, and Myles will too, even at age 3. To protect him from obstacles and frustrations is to do him no favors. He’s going to be all right—no matter how hard that is to imagine. 

Ben Tanzer is a writer and social worker living in Chicago with his beautiful (and pregnant) wife, Debbie and, 3½-year-old son, Myles.

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