Please Stop Talking About My Son With a Speech Delay Like He Can't Hear You

smiling preschool boy
Ashley Austrew

Before school started this year, I took my 4-year-old son to get a haircut. This is not an easy task in my house. My son hates the loud buzzing sound of the clippers and panics at the sound of the scissor blades trimming the hair near his ears. A haircut for him usually means me hugging him while he sits in the chair and turns only one side of his face towards the hairdresser at a time, the other side pressed firmly into my chest, confirming that no, I’m not going to walk away and let someone chop off his ear.

During this particular haircut, things were going better than usual. I’d asked the hairdresser to forego the clippers and only do a quick trim with scissors, just enough to keep it long but prevent any mullet-style overgrowth. As she trimmed, she asked my son about school.

“What grade are you going to be in?”

“Um, pee-tay,” he responded.

“What?”

“Pee. Tay,” he said again, annunciating his words a little harder. She looked at me, helpless.

“He’s starting pre-K,” I piped up, smiling at him. “He’s really excited. Aren’t you, Cal?”

The appointment went on like that, with her asking questions, my son answering, and her turning to me for a translation. Occasionally, she’d turn to me and say something like, “How’d you understand that?” or “How can you tell what he’s saying?”

At one point, he got really upset at the mere suggestion of using the clippers to trim the hair on the back of his neck, and in the middle of me talking him down, she laughed and said, “Oh my God, seriously, how do you even understand what he’s saying? It’s so hard.”

  • “He has a speech delay,” I finally said. “But he understands you perfectly.”

    smiling little boy
    Ashley Austrew

    This happens a lot with my son. He has excellent comprehension and a huge vocabulary -- both of which are more than on par with what’s expected for his age -- but he has a speech delay that causes him to mix up letter sounds when he speaks. “Soccer” becomes “yokker,” for example, which doesn’t seem all that hard to comprehend, but sometimes he mixes up sounds in the middle of words too. At Target, he asks for a “toocah” (sticker), and at McDonald’s he wants an “ambarter appy meaw” (hamburger happy meal).

    I don’t blame people for misunderstanding. Sometimes I misunderstand, too. I’ll ask him to repeat what he said, and he knows it’s because I didn’t catch it. So he motions for me to bend down, and then he puts his little arms around my neck and says the word slowly right next to my ear.

    “What’s the sound at the beginning,” I asked, the first time he said “yokker.”

    “Sssss,” he hissed proudly.

    “Oh, sssoccer,” I said, enunciating the “s” sound. “Can you try that? Hiss at the beginning?”

    “Sssssoccer,” he said back. This is the day-to-day with my boy.

  • Advertisement
  • When he was younger, it was easy for me to understand everything he said.

    mom and little boy
    Ashley Austrew

    I was his main caregiver and he only asked for simple things, like milk, banana (his first word), Daniel Tiger, book. Now, he’s an active 4-year-old who speaks in full sentences, and those sentences are often a long string of flipped letter sounds that I try to decipher quickly and silently, without letting him know that I’m struggling to follow. I do better than most because I spend every day with him and I know the quirks of his language, the pattern of “incorrect” sounds he makes. I know to listen for context and repeat back the words I do recognize until I’ve gotten the gist of his meaning. I know it’s a struggle for anyone who just meets him or who hasn’t spent as much time with him as I have. The problem comes when they talk about it like he can’t understand what they’re saying.

    The hairdresser laughing about how hard it is to understand my son is something that happens all the time, with people from all walks of life. They marvel at how I understand him, like he’s some kind of medical oddity and our relationship is my entertaining roadshow. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and gaze at the mother talking to her 'defective' little boy.” They ask me if he “always talks like that” or wonder “what’s wrong with his speech?” They prod me unashamedly about his medical history and if we’ve seen a doctor and if he’s been evaluated.

  • For the record, he has.

    first day of school photo
    Ashley Austrew

    He was getting a haircut because this year he started a special pre-K through our district's special education program where he works with a speech-language pathologist three days each week, and his regular teacher is trained in working with kids with developmental delays as well. I’m so grateful for them and how he’s enveloped in their kindness every day. I’m so grateful that in just the month or so that he’s been in school I already notice an immense difference in the way he talks.

    My son’s speech delay is a temporary issue. One day, he’ll be a third grader or a sixth grader or a grown adult and have little recollection of the days when he used to say “yipsers” instead of “scissors.” But shame can’t be trained away with flashcards, nightly reading time, and letter exercises. And when people talk about my son like he’s not in the room, even when he’s sitting right beside them, that’s what they create. Shame.

  • The hardest part of having a child with a speech delay is not the delay itself.

    little boy playing
    Ashley Austrew

    It's not the appointments with the speech pathologist, the special assignments, or even the nosy people who ask if you did something to cause the delay (“Didn’t you read to him when he was baby?”). The hardest thing is knowing that my son is a brilliant, loving, and energetic little kid with an entire world inside of him -- a world in which he loves Star Wars and getting his nails painted, making up stories, taking things apart to see how they work, tracing letters in workbooks to teach himself how to write -- that very few people get to see because they assume a child who doesn’t speak clearly is somehow less of a person.

    Yes, my son is difficult to understand sometimes. But that doesn’t make him, or any other child with a developmental delay, less real. And the way you speak to and about kids like my son has an impact, even if they can’t express it.

developmental delays