Monday, August 10, 2009

Problems With Intentional Movement

We’ve been planning this trip all year. We quit our jobs, moved across the country, and invested two months of time and money into making Sereia seaworthy again. We splash this week, and we hope to move on board by Saturday.

There’s just one hitch. At nineteen months, Silas isn’t walking or talking yet.

He cruises around with great confidence, just barely holding on to something solid. He babbles incessantly, with rhythms and intonations that sound increasingly like speech. His eyes are bright and focused, he makes excellent eye contact and his hunger for books and music is insatiable.

But he doesn’t point to what he wants. He doesn’t wave “bye-bye.” He has no recognizable words. And he can’t yet walk on his own.

Peter and I have been through the full spectrum of emotions about all this, from breezy confidence (“Einstein didn’t talk until he was four years old!”), to despair (“Holy crap, what if he’s a ‘TARD?”). The journey has been all the more harrowing because we are alone out here, with no family or trusted friends to confide in. The people we know in New Zealand are new friends, the kind that say, “I’m sure everything will be just fine!” and then tactfully change the subject.

Recently, we determined to stop wasting time with fear and guesswork, and consult a specialist. We drove three hours to Auckland, so that Silas could play for an hour with a developmental speech therapist. Her verdict: he’s not a ‘tard. But his language is significantly delayed.

“Have you heard of dyspraxia?” she asked.

Limp with relief at the notion that I wouldn’t have to feed him with a spoon for the rest of my life, I barely heard what she was saying. But then she explained.

“I’m not saying this is a diagnosis—it’s too early to diagnose this, and I’d like you to see a pediatrician—but what I’m seeing is leading me to think of dyspraxia. Essentially, it’s a problem with executing intentional movement, so the late walking is related to the late speech. Think of speech as a very complicated dance between your tongue and your lips and your mouth. If the child has a hard time coordinating his legs, then you can imagine it would be a difficult to coordinate all the different muscles you need for speech.”

“But it’s not cognitive?” I asked again, my voice breaking.

“Not at all. From what I can see, Silas is a bright and curious little boy. But while other little children will pick up speech patterns automatically, Silas may need to be taught how to move his mouth, or point his finger.”

She pulled out a stack of handouts. “Here are some exercises you can do with him at home, to encourage him to point and talk.”

As she went through the materials with us, I scanned ahead. It was pretty small-scale stuff, like blowing bubbles and popping them with an index finger. Nothing you couldn’t do on a boat.

Because of course, now Peter and I are faced with a choice. Do we pursue our plans, go sailing, write articles, compile a travel book? Can we give Silas the help he needs while living on a sailboat? Or do we need to make a screeching U-turn, get jobs, move to Auckland, and save our pennies for speech therapy several times a week?

What, asks Darwin’s Puppet, is best for the baby?

Could it be, say… circumnavigating New Zealand? That way, we’ll be near the coast, and we can pull the plug at any time, move on land, and get specialized help if we need it. It would be a great chance to learn about our new country, and it should make a fantastic story. We can pop bubbles and do speech exercises as we sail. With periodic consultations, and the assistance of research libraries along the way, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to help Silas learn as we show him how to live an adventurous life.

First stop, Auckland. Silas has an appointment with a developmental pediatrician on August 27th. And we’ll arrive there in the most appropriate way. It is, after all, the City of Sail.


  1. What matters most is that you are thinking about these things. Nobody can tell you what's best for your baby but you.

    Just to share -- my little guy (also a boat baby, hence the corny user name) was also a late walker. 19 months was when he started to take his first steps. People joked that moving around on land was just not his thing. I was happy not to have one of those 10 month old mindless speed racers to chase around on deck who launch off edges not understanding the nervous screechings of their mamas chasing behind.
    The fact that he UNDERSTANDS you and before he starts moving around, to a boat mama, is a great advantage.
    Best to you all!

  2. Fer gosh sakes take the kid sailing. Each and every boat kid I've ever met has been way better in every aspect, from communicating to swinging from rigging by one finger in a gale. Landlubber kids look retarded in comparison.

    My cousin didn't start walking or talking till he was 24 mos. Now grown up, he's a very bright person and a brilliant architect,even without the advantage of having been dragged to sea by his parents.

    Circumnavigating New Zealand is a grand idea. Baby steps...

  3. My newphew didn't start talking much until after he was 2 years old. Now he's blabbing up a storm.

  4. Our son, though not a full time boat kid, is just about one month younger than Silas. He doesn't really talk yet, although there are some patterns of sounds that we recognize as words. (Well, there is one - "Hey!", used exactly as an adult or older child would - but that's about it.) On the walking side, though, you're fortunate. We have had nothing but trouble keeping him from climbing the lifelines, the masts, the companionways steps, anything on the boat it might be possible to climb, since he was 10 months. Trivial little challenges like 12 foot high slides at the park? He's been soloing those since his first birthday. With our hearts in our throats the whole way.

    So take the kid sailing. Stick close to New Zealand for a while, see how things go, but get the kid on the water. It's a great life for a child, and if it is dyspraxia, hey, it's a great environment. Lots of possible moves and actions, limited space, dedicated Mommy and Daddy time to train - how much better could it be?

    And not all Anonymous posters are shitheads. Some of us are just lazy.

  5. I have personally known 3 children who were late talkers, one waiting until he was 4. He now works with the Canadian Space Program. Another, younger,who didn't talk until she was over 2, has just won 3 scholarships as well as seriously excelling in sports. The third is a talented and reasonably well known musician.
    I can understand the anxious moments - I had them when one of our girls had a hearing problem - but usually these things really do work themselves out. By all means seek professional advice, but it's not gospel.

  6. I can't thank you enough for your supportive comments on this. Peter and I both were extremely nervous to write about this on the blog, without the protective shield of irony and exaggeration. You give me encouragement and strength. Thank you!

  7. So do you really believe all the "specialists" can pull a rabit out of the hat compared to time,patience,persistence,environmental stimulation and the simple passage of time?

    If so, you're far more captured by the system than I. Sure, if the child had a brain tumor or something and needed surgery, that's a valid argument for sticking close to specialists.
    But atypical development. No, I'll side with the previous posters.

    What were Mark Twains famous words? ...something to the effect "don't worry about trouble ahead because 9 times out of 10 it will run off the track on its way to you".

  8. I'd swap'im for a refrigerator, washer/dryer and a toaster oven before it's too late...