It’s been almost two years since we learned that Frank has significant language and social developmental delays. But, we have chosen to delay slapping a label on him. Is he autistic? Does he have ADHD? Is it an auditory processing disorder? Maybe it’s one of those things. Maybe it’s all of those things. Maybe it’s none of those things.
What we do know is that Frank experiences the world differently than most three-year-olds. He’s shy. He’s quiet. He doesn’t always understand what we’re telling him or asking him. He seldom participates in group activities, choosing instead to play by himself, by his own rules. He can solve sixty-piece puzzles in mere minutes. He carries an apple everywhere he goes. He can’t take big crowds, loud noises, and lighting that is too bright or too dark. He needs to be held in a human vice to fall asleep. He has a burning desire to explore and investigate everything. In fact, I call him “Curious Frank” after his favorite storybook character, Curious George.
The progress he’s made in two years with the help of a very special team of teachers and therapists is incredible. He makes more eye contact. He has hundreds of words (he can spell over thirty of them).
I made a video of him singing “Happy Birthday” to his godfather the other day. To my delight, he’s recently developed a love for painting and listening to stories. “Let’s make art,” is my favorite thing he says.
Most of the time, he asks for things rather than devising elaborate and dangerous plans to procure them himself. I’m not petrified of venturing out into public and having him run away from me anymore (though I can’t take my eyes off of him at the playground). He attends a wonderful Christian preschool with patient and kind teachers who adore and protect him. He has even made a few friends. He voluntarily goes to Mass, points at the risen Christ above our altar and says, “Jesus is everywhere.”
After much deliberation, Patrick and I decided to send Frank to St. Joan of Arc for preschool next year. Our four-year-old program is a rigorous five-day-a-week, all day experience, which is exactly what Frank needs to grow socially and academically. The Pre-K teacher and her assistant have created a nurturing, structured environment that will provide Frank with a safe, challenging, and exciting place to learn. I could not think of more capable hands to trust him with. (And I hear the art teacher/librarian is nice.)
Some days, I second guess myself. We enrolled Frank in a multi-sports program for preschoolers at our gym. When I took him to his first session on Tuesday, I watched for a couple of minutes to see what he would do. I used to think that I needed to include a preface every time I introduced Frank to someone new to explain why he doesn’t talk, listen, and behave like most three-year-olds, but I’ve decided to wait until someone needs to know about Frank’s differences.
A few minutes into the class, the dozen or so other kids were lined up and kicking their soccer balls toward the goal. Frank picked up his ball and ran around on the other side of the gym. When the teacher called after him and he didn’t respond, I interjected.
“Frank has some developmental delays, so he might not always understand you the first time,” I said.
“Oh, then, I’ll just leave him alone and let him do what he wants,” she said.
Her response frustrated me. I put him in the class because I wanted him to learn some social skills. “All he needs is your patience,” I said. By the end of class, he was participating with the other kids. Sometimes, he just needs time to explore.
In a few weeks, Frank will visit SJA’s preschool to get to know his teachers, his classroom, his routine, and some friends who are headed to kindergarten. We will develop an Individualized Education Plan (or IEP) with his special education team so that he has the resources he needs to learn in his unique way. I can’t wait to watch him grow at SJA and will continue to pray every day that Frank can develop the social and communication skills he needs to make his dreams come true.