Thank you all so much for the kind messages of support that you shared privately and publicly yesterday. I am encouraged and inspired by the stories you shared about your own experiences with kids and labels.
On the subject of labels…another label that was thrown about when we first began seeking help for Carlos was “significant developmental delay.” He had just turned three but was talking like a two year old. When kids his age are slow to communicate it can be due to autism, speech problems, or significant developmental delay (SSD). Or a combination. It really is difficult to tell whether they don’t know how to speak or don’t grok why we speak. Maybe Peppa Pig is on and they just don’t care to speak.
Now, you better believe that when I heard that phrase uttered by the school psychologist, I heard something along the lines of, “crippling developmental delay,” or “life-shattering developmental delay.” I imagined that my sweet-voiced boy would wake up one morning and say, “Hodor!” and that would be it. “Hodor hodor hodor.” (For those of you who don’t read/watch Game of Thrones, Hodor is a gentle giant who can only say one word. Yep, you guessed it–Hodor.)
After a few days of being afraid to even look at the paperwork that had Significant Developmental Delay listed as a possible situation, my lifelong curiosity about words broke through the blaring sirens of panic echoing between my ears. I parsed the phrase.
NOUN: Delay–yeah, I get that. He’s behind on the sentence making.
ADJECTIVE: Developmental–okey doke. He’s hit some milestones but others are still ahead of him. He’s developing at his own pace.
INTENSIFIER ADJECTIVE: Significant–ugh. That’s where life implodes and all I can see is a wall of white light and Carlos living in our basement for the rest of his life.
In my English major brain, “significant” means: consequential, earth-shattering, eventful, historic, momentous, monumental, tectonic, weighty. (Thank you, Merriam-Webster thesaurus!) When I mentioned my fear of this label being stuck on our kid, G and his scientist brain said, “Wait a second! ‘Significant’ means something worth noticing.'”
He started in on statistical significance, standard deviations, black magic statistics, Greek symbols. But he was right. “Significant” doesn’t mean cataclysmic. If I skim all the way down to meaning #5 in the dictionary, significant means “sufficiently large in size, amount, or number to merit attention.” Well, shucks. That doesn’t say anything about my basement. The synonyms for this meaning are downright cuddly: biggish, healthy, respectable, sizeable, substantive, good, tidy.
Would I have gotten less freaked out if the form said “Biggish Developmental Delay?” Probably. This lesson in semantics reminded me of the danger of labels for people: words mean different things to each of us. A school psychologist means one thing when she says “significant” and a mother hears a different thing, while talking about the same tiny person.
My friend, Wise Heather, shared an interesting article today: 10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing. In light of my struggle with significant, number seven struck a chord.
7. Statistically Significant
Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg wants to set the record straight about this idea:
“Statistically significant” is one of those phrases scientists would love to have a chance to take back and rename. “Significant” suggests importance; but the test of statistical significance, developed by the British statistician R.A. Fisher, doesn’t measure the importance or size of an effect; only whether we are able to distinguish it, using our keenest statistical tools, from zero. “Statistically noticeable” or “Statistically discernable” would be much better.
For the rest of this journey, I will be cool if my son receives extra help at school because he has a Discernable Developmental Delay. I want him to be comfortable in the world.
With the progress he’s making, I’ll also be cool with buying him a thesaurus for his fifth birthday. Either a thesaurus or an erector set because Dude is wild about the mechanical toys! I find that…significant.