I remember the first time someone said: “what’s wrong with your son”. I think my face, turning white, then splotchy red with anger, told him that what he’d said was not the right thing to say.

“I just mean…” he said, ignoring my body language, shoulders already carrying me away from him. “Why does he make that noise? How old is he?”

“How old is he?” is a question I wish we could ban. There’s no good answer. If I say his age he’ll be too old to be doing that or too young to be doing this…

And the helpful advice will begin like “Well, at that age, they don’t need to be able to do that!” or “Wow, I couldn’t handle my kid still being in nappies at that age, we just said no way at three to nappies”.

How old is he when he can’t make sentences?

How old is she when she can’t make eye contact?

How old are they when loud noises hurt and the humming starts?

How old is he when he can’t regulate his voice and everything is yelling?

Ages should be stages. A continuum where all children learn at different times in different ways and we support them no matter what.

It was my kindergarten that taught me to let go of milestones and ages. If only everyone had their own kindergarten teacher in their back pocket, gently telling them to ignore the endless advice and focus.

Focus on this: Your child may struggle to speak but you can hear him in his dancing. You can hear him in his smile when he picks up a tambourine. You can hear him when he traces the line of your chin and nuzzles beneath it.

When you stand watching, and you begin to compare, begin to look at why your child doesn’t have children playing with him, when you watch as your child hums away in her own little world – you need someone to stand with you.

But you also need someone to say: They’re happy. This is hard. There’s a grieving period, a fight you didn’t sign up for that you now have to have with a complex system that isn’t well-resourced or funded. But look: They’re happy. Right now.

Battles will come, battles will go. It takes so much time and energy.

But look.

See what others see when it’s love – love for your child’s different ways of taking on the world. See how they hum to concentrate – how clever they are! How smart their brains are to know this is what they need to be able to focus.

See their communication when it’s not just limited to language. Open your mind to new ways of talking to each other.

The vocabulary you’ve learned might not be the one you expected to learn – dyspraxia, auditory processing, SLI, PDD-NOS, IEPs, PECs, DDTs, OT, SLT, PT.  But treat it as knowledge for your basket.

And one day you’ll be seen for all you do – rushing to appointments, doing “homework”, cutting out squares with pictures of milk and cereal on them, and lying awake at night wondering how you’ll get through.

You’re not alone in this. There are so many parents who are looking at their children and thinking:

Don’t ask me how old he is. Ask me about his favourite song.

Don’t ask me how old she is. Ask me about how when it rains she loves the sound and she wants to run out and dance in it.

When my child is struggling, help me. Don’t ask me how old he is.

When my child is hurting, be there for her. Don’t ask me how old she is.

Stop looking at children as other and journey with parents together – with love, compassion, and understanding.

Through every age. And stage.


Emily Writes

Emily Writes is the editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Buy it here. Her second book Is it Bedtime Yet? is out now. Follow her on Facebook here.

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  1. […] wrote about speech and my son finding his voice. You can hear him in his dancing. See what others see when it’s love – love for your child’s different ways of taking on the […]


  2. Annemarie Gibbs December 6, 2018 at 8:24 am

    What I really hate is that spoken language is one of the things that makes us human, and this means that when someone doesn’t have spoken language they are often treated as “less than”. My son is just about to turn 25, and is still non-verbal, like yours he still hums,although these days he’s more likely to block out unpredictable noise with loud music through his headphones (the music is predictable and it’s unpredictablity that is the issue not the noise level for our boy). He has learned to communicate using a cellphone (he has a condition called hyperlexia which means that the written word comes easily to him, he taught himself to read aged 3, and his spelling is excellent) and these days lives independently with his fiance and support workers going in daily.

    Earlier this year I sat in Dunedin airport waiting for a delayed flight, I spoke with a woman who was flying to Wgtn, and she told me about her grandson who was non-verbal, and we discussed PECS, she’d not heard of them, I would love to contact her to see how they are getting along.


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