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My Panic Over Speech Delays Just Got a Whole Lot Worse

Photograph by Twenty20

I never thought we would be here. In the thick of a moment everyone tells you will never happen.

All mothers panic about something being wrong with their child. First-time mothers are notoriously obsessive about milestones. But everyone tells you that those milestones are crazy, that in the end all kids turn out OK, that their child was a late-talker and that now they won't stop.

But what if, for once, your child isn't OK?

We've been living in that limbo for the past few weeks. At my son's 2-year check-up, our pediatrician went through the standard checklist and concluded that our child was not speaking enough. Our toddler said a few words but was not where "he should be" at this age.

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I knew this, because even though everyone told me not to, I kept reading the milestones. I had hopped on the "my son is just a late-talker" bandwagon. Besides, he did say things. He can say his numbers, his letters. He tells us when he wants milk. He doesn't use full phrases, but sometimes he does. Isn't that enough?

The doctor advised us to have his hearing evaluated and then make an appointment with a speech therapist. We speak Spanish at home and so, this whole time, my main worry was that he wouldn't grow up bilingual. I was figuring the languages would emerge. But it looks like there was something more to worry about.

We paused on what to do. He would start preschool soon, and we felt that a setting with other children would help him flourish. He would become more verbal in no time. Indeed, we saw some progress. We decided to wait three months to get the evaluation. After all, we didn't want our son to be evaluated like he was some kind of lab rat.

My mother, who is with him often, says it's me, not him, that I'm probably overanalyzing. To be fair I am prone to rather obsessive thoughts and anxiety.

Besides, so-and-so had a child who didn't speak till they were 3 years old. Once they spoke, it was in full sentences. It was fine.

A few weeks later, I didn't see a lot of progress. I say "I," because my mother, who helps us care for him, thought he was flourishing. His father heard him say more things. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention. I mean, I do work a lot and sometimes felt like I wasn't even with him long enough to really know. Maybe my expectations were too high?

Eventually, I said I had waited long enough. We set up the appointment with the speech therapist. She was very nice. She had great recommendations. She asked us tons of questions about how many words he says a day, if he was constantly adding language. She watched our son interact with us for about 1 hour and half.

There was no real diagnosis. She explained that she felt he was "probably OK." I still don't know what that means. She told us he should have speech therapy once a week. In the meantime, it pains me to see other babies who appear to be flourishing and speaking in ways I have yet to hear my son speak.

I didn't even know what to think. I still don't. I wanted to dismiss her results. She wasn't bilingual, so can she really thoroughly assess my son's language and speech without fully understanding his range?

My partner and I both work full time. We wondered who would take him to speech therapy.

It felt like we were seeing progress. Nonetheless, I started looking more closely.

Back when he was 12 months old, I cried for an entire day because I swore he was autistic. He didn't make eye contact, he didn't wave. But a few days after that he waved for the first time. The anxiety dissipated. He seemed to be thriving. He was social and loving life. He laughed with us and giggled.

As I kept a closer eye on things, I grew more concerned. Did he sustain eye contact long enough?

My mother, who is with him often, says it's me, not him, that I'm probably overanalyzing. To be fair I am prone to rather obsessive thoughts and anxiety. So maybe he is fine and the one who truly needs help is me. I haven't ruled that out.

Again, everyone has reassured me that he is fine. I appreciate that. First because in most cases this is true. Kids are fine. I know about life with a fear that never quite materialize. When I was 11, I read that anemia is somehow related to leukemia. I made my mom take me to the doctor, because I was convinced I had leukemia.

I didn't look up autism symptoms because, frankly, I had already done that. We know that most kids exhibit some of the symptoms at some point or another. So I let more time pass. I kept hoping that one day we would wake up, and he would just be speaking. Does it even happen that way?

I know that speech therapy and ruling out hearing issues are precursors to an autism evaluation.

Who knows? It seems most parents don't ever have to worry, because their kids just start speaking with little effort. And here I was reading to my child every night or, rather, attempting to read to him while he yanked the book from me and babbled. I spoke to him, at him. We engaged him during bath time and read up on how to encourage his speech.

We are doing everything we can. Right?

Last week, the director of my son's preschool was waiting for me at the door during dismissal. She was of course aware that we were monitoring his expressive language, and we had discussed it at length. But this day she looked me at with some concern and asked, "Did you ever have your son's hearing checked?" She explained that he sometimes won't respond to his name. She said earlier that day she had tried to get his attention and even snapped her fingers close to his ear and he wouldn't even look at her. I told her we hadn't, mostly because we figured that if he could hear his cartoons from the other side of the room there wasn't a hearing issue.

The next day we scheduled the evaluation.

I wrote the preschool director an email and told her I appreciated her honest feedback. I said that we were going to do everything we could to find our son the right support. I cried as I typed the email.

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What if I was right? What if what I suspected when my son was 12 months old, that he might have some spectrum issues, was right? I know that speech therapy and ruling out hearing issues are precursors to an autism evaluation.

Maybe it's just speech delays. I don't know yet. We don't know anything yet. I haven't slept in days.

I prepared myself for everything when I opted to become a mom, everything except something like this. It's hard to enjoy your son when you are busy observing him and turning every interaction into a speech therapy class. I didn't know that was even possible.

All I can do now is prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

I'm calling my therapist in the meantime.

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