Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts.
James 3:13ish

I keep trying to find ways to talk about Benji’s talking — typing different introductions, waiting a day or so, then deleting them. Nothing’s working for me, so I’m just going to jump in. Benji doesn’t use words to communicate much.

He does communicate, usually using elaborate pantomimes complete with sound effects (his way of saying “excavator” and “cement mixer” are hilarious and effective), throwing only a very few words in. When he does “say” something, it’s usually a minimally-articulated syllables, so “more, please” comes out “muh puh yes” (he does say “yeah” and “yes” quite clearly, and alas, has just this week added “no” and “nope” to his repertoire). Most of the time I have to interpret for him; only Ian, my mom, and Ian’s mom usually have a good sense of what Benji’s getting at. Even then, sometimes I have to help out there, too. Worst of all, from Benji’s perspective, is when I don’t even know what he’s trying to communicate. Then things get really frustrating.

All the same, Benji’s doctor — a family practice doctor at Virginia Mason, not a specific pediatrician — wasn’t concerned. Some kids just take their time getting there, he said, but they all get the same place in the end. So what if at PEPS all the other kids are using sentences? Benji will talk when he’s ready. I’m sure this is true, but shortly after Benji’s second birthday, I received a phone call that galvanized me into action.

Some quick background: For the last year, we’ve done a word-use survey for the UW ILABS. They provide a long, long, long — I’d almost say comprehensive — list of words Benji might be saying, and I select which ones he actually does say. This survey always vaguely depressed me, because I never got to check off many of the words, leaving many sections entirely untouched. But, I reassured myself, we’ll get there eventually. I’m sure we’re not that far off.

That’s where I was wrong, and this phone call came in. A staff person for the ILABS called me around Benji’s second birthday, shortly after I completed the survey for that quarter. She told me that Benji’s word use was in the bottom 6% to 7% for his age, and that although they weren’t a diagnostic facility, they recommended we have him checked out to see if speech therapy would be helpful. Would we like any resources? At first I said no, thank you, he’s normal in every other respect and we’re not worried. But after I hung up the phone, I started thinking and comparing him to all his peers. We see quite a number of other kids Benji’s age, thanks to PEPS and playdates, and I realized that my perception that Benji didn’t talk much compared to his peers was really true. He didn’t. Should he? Was he way off? Was I just underestimating and under-reporting his word use on the survey? How could I tell?

A discussion with my friend Christy, a physical therapist for the Northshore School District, helped crystallize it for me. She recommended that we go to the Kindering Center to have him evaluated. They would run a bunch of tests on him (disguised as play, those sneaky devils!) and compare him to his peers in a variety of areas. If he was well below normal, we would qualify for government assistance to help Benji come up to speed. Although internally I cringe to see him lumped in as “developmentally delayed,” I arranged an assessment, and we did it on September 15. They gave us the results immediately: The speech therapist agreed that he was well below normal in word use, and that he could use speech therapy; and, surprisingly, the physical therapist said she observed a delay in his gross motor skills that qualified to be addressed with physical therapy, too.

The speech therapy qualification I just accepted. No news there. But the gross motor… Benji did start walking long after most of his peers, between 16 and 17 months, but he’s walking and running easily these days. He doesn’t climb or jump, and has trouble going up and down — especially down — stairs the way his peers do, but I assume that’s because he’s six months or more behind most of his peers in practice time.

In any case, we are starting speech therapy next week and physical therapy some time soon. Although I’ll be sorry to lose the sound effects, I’m looking forward to helping Benji have words for his experiences and needs.

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