By Alexandra Levit
Noreen’s first child, Christopher, was the baby all new mothers hope for. Quiet and well-behaved, he gave his ecstatic parents little cause for concern, until one afternoon in a Gymboree class in suburban New Jersey when Christopher was eighteen months old. As Noreen watched, she noticed that her son wasn’t paying attention and following directions like the other kids. Rather, he seemed lost.
At Christopher’s two-year checkup, the pediatrician said that he was developmentally-delayed, but Noreen’s motherly intuition told her that something didn’t add up. Christopher could effortlessly recite the alphabet and count to 20. Unlike other developmentally-delayed children, by age two-and-a-half he could put words together, but didn’t seem to understand what they meant. Thus began a year-and-a-half long odyssey to uncover the true cause of Christopher’s communication problems.
When Christopher was three, he was tested for a special needs preschool, and was admitted on the basis that his academic scoring was high but his problem-solving scoring low. Shortly after Christopher entered school and started working with a private therapist, Noreen finally had her answer. Christopher suffered from Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder (SPD), a little-known syndrome on the high-functioning end of the Autism Spectrum.
According to the National Autistic Society, features of SPD include delayed language development, learning to talk by memorizing phrases instead of putting words together freely, problems understanding questions, and difficulty following conversations. Children with this disorder have trouble comprehending the meaning of what other people say and cannot use speech appropriately themselves.
Now that Noreen had pinpointed the issue, Christopher’s parents and grandparents got to work helping Christopher where he needed them most; socialization and the appropriate communication that went along with it. When Christopher was about to receive a gift, Noreen would whisper in his ear, put on your happy face. And when he was angry with her but didn’t know how to express it, she’d coach, now its time for your mad face.
Christopher’s therapist also recommended a new CD-ROM from Social Skill Builder (www.socialskillbuilder.com), a company started by two sisters and speech pathologists to provide interactive learning tools for teaching social skills to children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder and other language/learning difficulties.
The CD-ROM, Preschool Playtime, offers five levels of role-playing exercises. In each level, real-life children are presented in real-life situations: in the park, in a play group, at preschool and on an outing. Playing the game, Christopher is asked to identify correct behavior related to social interactions such as taking turns, sharing, apologizing, cooperating, maintaining personal space and listening.
Greetings, and how to act when playing traditional games like Duck-Duck-Goose, do not come naturally to Christopher, but he doesn’t like me to explain these things to him, says Noreen. Using Preschool Playtime, we’re able to take advantage of the fact that he’s a really visual child. When he watches a child in the program stop over at a friends house to say hi, or a group playing Ring-Around-The-Rosie, he’s able to imitate the situation with other kids later on.
Since starting therapy, Christopher has made incredible progress. It’s like night and day, says Noreen. He regularly holds court at play dates from school and the neighborhood, and has been known to compete with his fourteen-month-old little brother, whom he challenges on the words to Old MacDonald.”
Early intervention made all the difference for us, says Noreen. So many parents are in denial or are not aware of developmental milestones, but its so important to recognize the signs that something isn’t right with your child, and then act on them. Without the steps that we’ve taken, Christopher would be a different kid today. But as things stand, our family is really happy and looking forward to the future.