Have you ever stopped to think how babies learn? Most of us don’t think about it. I’ve always loved watching my kids learn, but I never realized how much future learning, and especially communication, was based on human interaction in infancy.
We play with babies, talk to them, sing to them, and one day, they respond back to us. Early responses may be as simple as maintaining eye contact or following an object with their eyes. Then there are the giggles. Who doesn’t love this stage? You hold a toy above a child and make ridiculous sounds as you bring the toy ever closer. You do this over and over again and your sweet child begins to anticipate the action and… responds. Then comes the day when your child mimics you. You play peek-a-boo or patty cake. You sing songs with motions and… kids respond. Long before words are spoken, communication skills are inputed into your child’s brain.
What happens if a child never experiences (or has a chemical imbalance that doesn’t register) these loving, playful, important first steps in communication? They can still learn to talk. They can speak words, but they become severely handicapped in actual communication. They don’t know appropriate responses to questions, emotions, and outside stimuli. Often these kids are labeled as emotionally unstable and uncooperative. They are awkward in social settings. They grow up to be the adult that others label as unsociable, weird, or “just not right.”
Most people think the biggest challenge in international adoption comes because your child speaks a different language. Oh, if that were the case, life in my house would be a breeze. Actually, this is one of the easiest challenges to overcome, not the hardest. New words and vocabulary…that comes naturally as you talk and live with your child. But communication…that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.
When we first met Hanissa, the girl was determined to communicate. We spoke two very different languages, but her fierce desire to make us understand was evident. She would point, chattering away in Amharic as if she had no doubt that we would understand. When we didn’t, she would take our hand and lead us to an object and explain once again. She constantly asked, “What’s it?” What is it? She wanted to know the name of everything she saw.
When we met Kylah, there was no conversation. She was locked up behind heavy walls and she didn’t have a clue how to tear them down. We started pointing to objects around us and in books and she would repeat. She had great repetition skills, great sight recognition. She spoke words, but she seldom communicated.
Almost 3 months have passed since we walked into that little coffee shop at our hotel in China and saw each other for the first time. Three months. In some ways, I can’t believe it has only been three months. So much has happened. She has learned so much. About two weeks ago, she started grabbing our hand trying to tell us something. Those moments make me heart leap for joy. Then there are most days when we say, “Goodnight Kylah,” and her response is, “Goodnight Kylah” simply because she knows how to repeat but not communicate.
Through games like peek-a-boo and children’s songs, she learning that there are expected responses. And, we are beginning to see little cracks of light as comprehension seeps in. Still there are many days when I look at her and wonder what it must be like to be trapped in silence unable to share your needs, hurts, desires, or emotions. I do see progress, though, and it often comes in the most unexpected ways.
Soon after we arrived home, we discovered that Kylah had very little fine motor skills. Holding a pencil or crayon was frustrating. Drawing a circle was laborious and any other shape was out of the question.
Here is a sample of her art work from a little over a month ago. She refused to draw without my hand covering hers on the pencil. Trust me, I helped a lot with this drawing.
Here is a sample from a few weeks ago. She started drawing circles, then suns, and then flowers. Then she added faces. We’ve been focusing on emotions and feelings. Notice that her sun is crying.
The day she drew that sun, something amazing happened. She gained the ability to tell a story. She started communicating. And she drew, and drew, and drew. Each picture more detailed and telling something of her thoughts. She began adding details like teeth, hair, and ears.
She began to mimic the emotions she was drawing and saying the appropriate words like happy, sad, mad.
My favorite picture of the day was the one below. She was able to communicate that this was Kylah riding on Daddy’s shoulders. (Something that had happened a short time earlier at the zoo. She loved it so much that she now begs David to do this constantly now and even gives her dolls shoulder rides.) Communication is happening.
I also love the following picture. It was Kylah’s favorite. She was so proud of this heart and wanted to show everyone her beautiful drawing (she brought it to me at least 10 times in 10 minutes and she still finds it and shows it to me). Without any prompting, without any help, she drew it. A month earlier she struggled to make any closed object. Not only did she draw it, but she wanted to share it with me using words and pictures. Communication.
And the drawings continue.
I know there is still so much locked up in that mind of hers, but the key is turning. There are cracks in the walls. Little by little we are learning to share our thoughts and feelings with one another. It is truly an amazing journey.