Our story began like many others. After an uneventful pregnancy and relatively easy labor, I gave birth to a healthy 8 lb. 9 oz. boy on May 20, 2011. Our sweet Ryder progressed as all the charts said he should, met all the milestones, gained weight and height toward the top of the charts, and started walking at nine months.
At around ten months, he began to say “cat” very clearly; since we have two cats, it was a natural first word for him. We were always complimented on what a quiet baby he was. In hindsight, we realized that he was very quiet, never really cooing or babbling as a baby. When Ryder was 14 months old, we moved from Boulder, Colorado to Jacksonville, Florida.
After our move, Ryder stopped saying “cat” and began to say “meow” instead. It was cute at first, but then I began asking our new pediatrician about the substitution of words for sounds. I was told, “It’s not a big deal, don’t worry about it, he obviously understands everything.” Okay, I thought, she’s the professional, right?
Over the next 18 months, Ryder gained a few words, including “momma,” “dada,” “Sasha” (his sister), “dog” (which he usually referred to as “woof”), and others, totaling 34 words when he was almost three. At every doctor’s appointment, I brought up his lack of vocabulary. After a year of being told, “He’s a late talker, he understands everything, stop worrying,” we became accustomed to what I call the never-ending game of charades. He could walk me to his cup, and I knew what he wanted; I’d show him the milk or water and he would point. He could point to the movie he wanted to watch or the puzzle he wanted. I knew it wasn’t “normal,” but I had asked all of the questions, and in reality, it had become our normal.
Around October 2013 conversation with the doctor changed. I was told that I talked too much for him, that I don’t make him work for it; that it’s because I have an older child, that I should refuse to give him something until he says it. He was 2.5 years old. Again, I thought, she’s the professional, and I have to rely on her expertise. I had better change everything immediately because I am hindering my child’s development!
I felt like a complete failure. I met with Ryder’s teachers, who had also had expressed concern, and told them what the doctor had said. They began to try the things the doctor had suggested. Not only did we not gain any words, but everything also became a fight. I shouldn’t give him milk because he can’t say it? Or dinner? Or a toy? Where was the line? What kind of advice was this? Everyone was miserable. When his teachers and I met again, they suggested that he undergo speech screening.
In April 2014, I received the results of Ryder’s speech screening, covered with scribble marks, a check next to “Fail,” and a note that said, “Call me.” The speech pathologist said he didn’t have enough words for her to screen him. She told me he could point to every letter, number, and color, but he couldn’t say the word for each. Noting a gap between his expressive and his receptive speech, she said, “I think your son has something called apraxia; he needs a full evaluation immediately.”
I’m not sure I heard anything she said after that, because I was frantically googling while she was still speaking. What was apraxia? Would he be okay? What did this mean for him, for us, for our future? Would he ever speak?
As I read the Apraxia “checklist,” I realized that he met every single mark. One of the biggest indicators of apraxia is a severe gap between expressive and receptive communication. How did our pediatrician not know this? I will never forget the tears and hopelessness of that day. When we took Ryder for a full evaluation, the speech pathologist’s suspicions were confirmed. We found a new pediatrician, who immediately confirmed the diagnosis and told us that out of those 34 words we clung to for hope, 85-90% would be considered unintelligible, meaning that only we understood Ryder.
Going home to learn everything we could, we discovered that Childhood Apraxia of Speech is found in about one out of every 1,000 kids. They understand everything going on around them, but they have a neurological motor planning disorder that prevents them from speaking. There is a wide range in severity, from being completely nonverbal to experiencing fluency issues, pitch changes, difficulty “planning” what they are trying to say and/or a combination of these characteristics. To progress, children with apraxia require intense, frequent one-on-one speech therapy. There is no matrix to follow, no cure, and no real light at the end of the tunnel.
Then we were dealt our second big blow: most insurance companies deem this condition a “habilitative” or developmental delay, meaning that our child never had the skill, so he can’t receive rehab to regain it—or if it is developmental, he will grow out of it and we should refer to our school system for assistance. Calling every government agency I could, I was told everything from he’s too young, to he’s too old; you make too much, you already have insurance, so we can’t accept you, and my favorites, “We have a ten-year wait list” or “We have closed our waitlist because we have no idea when we will reach the end.”
This past year has been the hardest, loneliest, and most frightening year of my life. I can’t help wondering, does he have friends? How was his day? Do kids pick on him? What is school like for him? We have good and not so good days; some are truly unbearable. We make Ryder wear an ID bracelet and necklace, the idea being that he could become separated and not be able to even communicate.
In all of my research, I stumbled upon the CASANA organization, which has become my lifeline for information, support, and scholarships for speech therapy. I took Ryder to Pittsburgh to see a specialist who is affiliated with CASANA, and I met the people who have made my family’s life a little easier. I was blown away by their small but dedicated staff. I learned that approximately 85% of the funds they raise go back to the families, to research, and toward communication devices for some of the children.
I returned to Jacksonville determined to raise awareness and make a difference. This is why I have started a walk for our community. These children truly suffer in silence and need all of us to help them find their voices.
About the Author – Michelle Leigh
Although I will always have one foot in the ocean on the beaches of Florida and the other in the mountains in Boulder, Colorado, my heart will always be where my husband (Roly), children (Sasha & Ryder) and friends are. A determined doer I am always on the go; getting my kids to school, working full-time, and I love to cook my family healthy dinners but it all keeps me constantly moving. I am an avid Florida Gator fan, even when we are terrible…. But we have nowhere to go but up, right? Please?! I have always been a fierce fighter for the causes I believe in. Since Ryder’s diagnosis with apraxia, it has become my lifelong mission to make his voice and every other child living with apraxia heard. Whether it is healthy eating, living naturally, or working with a child on how to overcome a disability I enjoy being fully immersed in my passions.