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Imagine a world in which you have no language.  Can you?  Perhaps the adult who becomes aphasic could experience this… perhaps someone like my father who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease experienced this – but I think that all children regardless of where they are from come into the world as blank slates, computers without any language installed.  All of use start out in life without any language at all.

In an internationally adopted child it is my impression from reading about those who live in orphanages this blank slate may actually continue into their new homes.  In her book, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope by Kay Bratt this very phenomenon is described.  Ms. Kay lived in China and describes her work in a children’s orphanage and the lives of the children there.  She describes in her diary the daily experiences that she witnessed, the ways in which she was really able to help the children and her own journey of adopting a child internationally.  The impact of the environment that she describes undoubtedly contributes to the blank slate – the child devoid of any language as the result of a lack of stimulation.  It is a wonderful book to read and gives a very interesting perspective of children who come with that life experience in hand.

Sharon Glennen, a well known authority in the field of international adoption is a speech-language pathologist and describes in an article within the book Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections which is edited by Jean MacLeod and Sheena Macrae, PhD some of the developmental issues that may influence the development of language in this group of children.  Her articles are numerous on the subject and searching for additional articles by her may be beneficial if you treat an adopted child in your practice.  As well, this particular text, dealing with developmental issues from Birth through Pre Adolescence, is a wonderful resource for parents as well and covers other aspects of adoption.

Ms. Glennen’s work speaks to me as the parent of an adoptive child; although his adoption was domestic.  Had I known more about the history of my now fifteen year old son at the point that we met his biological mother it would have been so helpful.   I think that I would have been proactive and done a bit more research in terms of the specialized needs with which he came to his adoptive father and I.  After the fact, I found myself delving into literature and consulting with specialists in the areas of difficulty with which he presents.  I still am with the knowledge that children, even teenagers are works in process and have brains that are still in the process of development.  It is this experience that facilitated this review of literature and reading about other experiences of adoptive parents.  The day that we finalized his adoption we met my son’s biological mother.  The one thing that she did share with us was that we would need to be strong as disciplinarians.  I now realize that she was alluding to the fact that her previous ten or eleven children (four in her custody) had issues in terms of behavior management.  Maybe I did not want to face this, or was in denial about this really happening to me.  Regardless, it moves me to think that we as professionals owe it to ourselves and our clients, patients, students and their families to be educated in areas of development of adopted children.

Ms. Glennen notes that non-verbal social interactions may be less affected by the orphanage environment as opposed to spoken language.  She encourages parents of children less than twenty four months to focus on these skills and that unlike non-adopted children, at age thirty months some true words are just beginning to emerge.    Imagine being in a preschool or social group as an internationally adopted child attempting to interact with your peers.  How frustrating that must be!

Adoptive parents often compare their children to those who are not so this seems incredible important to point out to them.  Ms. Glennen  goes on to state that a child who is not talking by thirty months may also have additional factors that influence the development of language in this particular group of children.  So, perhaps parents need to be advised to seek the guidance of other professionals, depending on the particular situation with which they are faced.

Older children are at a disadvantage.  They have to catch up to their peers, having had less exposure to the language of their new homes.  Glennen describes that these are children who may have “Limited English Proficiency”.  This will impact on their development of academic skills. These are the children who may have actually started to learn one language – but then this stopped because they moved away from their initial culture and perhaps into the home of an adoptive family with no fluency in the “language of origin”.  If I were seeing a child with this background, I would advise the adoptive parent to discuss this at the onset of the school year with the teachers who will be working with their children.  Perhaps at the outset, supports can be put into place to help these students as a group

As an adoptive parent I discovered that there are support groups for adoptive parents.  One such group in my New York area is called the Adoptive Parents Committee. Others in a group such as this can share experiences regarding how they have handled educational needs of their children.  On a personal note, I cannot begin to share with all of you how helpful this organization has been over the years.

I could probably go on, but I believe that I have given my readers and colleagues some food for thought which may be of benefit to others.  If this blog is a help to at least one of you, it will have been worth the time and energy put forth in its preparation.