We’ve had a flurry of activity here over the past week or so, with various people visiting us and several sleeping over at different points. Each person has come with their own story, most of which have made our day to day challenges pale into insignificance. Their stories are not mine to share of course, so I won’t, but reflecting on it all has left a few thoughts whirling about.
Firstly, talking is crucial. It is crucial in a very basic form: the form where it allows you to have your needs met. We know this as a family, having adopted Little Bear at a point when he couldn’t communicate well and there was more he couldn’t tell us than he could. We know it but sometimes a situation arises that reminds you. One of our guests was a family friend who happens to have learning difficulties. Her speech and language skills are very limited and even in the short time she stayed, we could see a snapshot of the challenges she faces every day. She couldn’t always tell us what she wanted to eat; she couldn’t tell us what she wanted to watch on TV; she couldn’t tell us why she did or didn’t want to do certain things. It must be incredibly frustrating, especially as she can understand much more than she can express (you can’t help but notice these things as a speech and language therapist and incidentally, be a little desperate to solve them).
I certainly feel as though life would be different for her were she able to say everything she is capable of, whether that was verbally or in another way. I also felt it must have been really scary for her, to come and stay somewhere she hadn’t stayed before, knowing she might not be able to get all her needs/ wants met. Imagine how vulnerable that would make you feel. I suppose some people might think that due to her learning difficulties she doesn’t think about these things but I know she knows her communication is different. I think she’s embarrassed about it and is certainly more reticent if there are a lot of people around or people she doesn’t know well. More words began to sneak out as she settled but there was still a huge disparity between the ones she comprehended and those she was able to verbalise at the point she wanted to say them.
I can’t help but think of the what-ifs. What if she’d had more/better speech and language therapy when she was younger? What if she did now? Is it too late? Is it ever too late? Should something alternative have been put in place? What should it be? Why wasn’t more offered? Did people think it was ok because of her learning needs? What if a young child presenting as she did when she was young was under speech and language therapy now? What potential would be seen in them? Would outcomes be different? I like to think so but given what we know of speech and language therapy services since Bercow10 (see Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action) I wonder…
Surely we should be striving for the most a person can do, whoever they are, instead of settling for the least we can get away with.
On another note, it was interesting to observe Little Bear with this person. Firstly it really highlighted the progress he has made with his communication. He is a competent communicator now; he can say everything he wants to say and mostly with clarity. It’s not to say that his speech and language skills are perfect, because they are not, but in general, if you popped him into a group of people he didn’t know well, he’d be ok communication-wise. I don’t mean to draw a comparison, because that’s wholly inappropriate, but the realisation that Little Bear has reached that point was a bit of a surprise. I worried for so long that he wouldn’t reach it that this little revelation is very welcome.
Along with this revelation came an uncomfortable truth. Little Bear is now able to use his communication skills for both positive and negative purposes and though he was mostly great with the lady I’m talking about, there was one point when he was tired and cottoned on to the fact that he was verbally wilier and could use his words to wind her up. It was weird to observe because I have seen it so many times directed towards Little Bear, from wilier peers. I tried to intervene to stop him as I could tell he was upsetting her but as he was on that trajectory where he couldn’t stop himself he carried on regardless and I decided to take him out of the situation and up to bed.
The incident had a weird, double-edged irony: I was sad to observe it and sad for the lady’s communicative limitations whilst being simultaneously disappointed that Little Bear would do it yet also noting it was indicative of his developmental progression. We talked afterwards about it and Little Bear could remember times when he wasn’t able to say what he wanted and times when he had to resort to other methods of getting his messages across, such as hitting out and I think he understood why he shouldn’t have exploited her communication difficulties as he had. He was sorry afterwards.
Although it feels like an important moment to reflect on, I don’t want to make it more significant than it was. Overall both boys were fabulous and just took all the issues of the past week in their stride. They are both very empathetic and I’m extremely proud of the kind, understanding, non-judgemental young men they are becoming.
At one point the lady I keep talking about gave Little Bear a bear hug that was a little squeezier than he might have liked. Initially he got a bit upset and took himself out of the room. When I went to him he started with the usual “I hate said person/ she hurt me/ she did it on purpose/ I hate her now” rhetoric but we had a little chat and I left him to calm down. The next thing I knew he was coming over to her, offering another hug but asking her to be more gentle. Again, I could see the progress he had made. Previously he wouldn’t have been able to put his communication skills to such good effect, would not have calmed so quickly and would have given said person a wide birth/cold shoulder for a lengthy period. I think the approach he took showed real maturity and I felt a glow of pride.
Our week also taught me that it is not just talking at the fundamental level of getting our most basic needs met that is crucial. Talking is also crucial to keeping us mentally well. Other guests we had were carrying other issues and when I say carrying them, I mean lugging about a massive sack of stress, hurt and grief wherever they go. The difference, I think, between that massive sack dragging you further down or you being able to get on with your life despite it, seems to be your ability to talk about it. The person who internalises or who does not have an available/ safe outlet for their worries and feelings is in danger. I know that sounds a little dramatic but I genuinely believe it’s true. There is a lot on social media at the moment about suicide prevention and all the statistics around the issue. It’s worrying.
Talking helps people take things out of their massive sack. Issues can become less, opinions can be sought, advice given, soothing words or hugs dispensed. Talking doesn’t make things go away but sometimes it can give perspective, space or a fresh view point. Things tend to multiply or expand or metastasise when left in the sack. Talking can curb things, keep them in check, prevent them taking on a life of their own.
On face value, one of our guests maybe seemed to have a lot of issues. They told me a lot of things. They seem to have a lot to worry about. However, I know that another of our guests, who said nothing, also has a huge sack of issues. It’s the one who said nothing that worries me. The one who talks spills the contents of their sack at regular opportunities and I’m glad they do. They have hard things to cope with but they’ll be ok. The other one, the one who doesn’t talk, I worry about them. I don’t know if they have that safe outlet, that trusted person, that someone who will just listen. I don’t know and I think their lack of being able to talk, even though they have the communication skills they need, is a red flag. I suspect it is not being viewed as such by people around them – they do not appear upset, they aren’t saying upset things ergo they must be fine.
Whilst talking is crucial, so is listening and both are required for mental wellness. I know many people who think they are good at listening but few who genuinely are. The best kind of listening is not just done with the ears; it is about observation, reading between the lines, hearing the unsaid. It is the ability, or maybe the willingness, to see beyond what is presented. I suppose it is about connection. I suspect not everyone thinks they have the time.
I also suspect that people don’t always think the same level of observation and alertness to emotional wellbeing is required for children; that somehow children are just fine. They aren’t and the ways they manage, or don’t manage, their feelings and worries and grief will follow them into adulthood and shape their future selves. This whole talking thing needs to start as soon as possible.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve got too wrapped up in adoption and the issues it brings. None of the people who have been here this week are care-experienced. They are not adopted yet they have experienced trauma. I guess I’ve been reminded that we don’t know what sacks people might be lugging with them; these cumbersome burdens are often invisible. The emphasis is on us, as fellow human beings, to be alert, to look beyond appearances, to actively observe and skip the snap- judgements. Talking is crucial but so is hearing the unspoken.
It has been a funny old week.