How do you solve a problem like Maribeth?

Today was Maribeth’s Individualized Education Plan meeting, an annual gathering where her preschool teacher, speech therapist, school psychologist and I discuss her progress and set goals. For two years she has received special-education services through our school district, and today’s meeting was reassuring and hopeful. I wish I could time travel back to 2012 with a full report or some kind of holographic message to ease the worries I had at the time. (“See, comparatively young and spry Ami: It gets better; it really does. You haven’t ruined her yet.”)

I didn’t want to think there was anything wrong with my kid (because that might mean there was something wrong with me as a mother). True, she wasn’t talking as her sisters had at the same age, but I grasped on to every shred of anecdotal evidence that she was just fine. My parents said my youngest brother didn’t talk at that age because he didn’t need to; he had my other brother and me to do everything for him. A friend told me her daughter (now a high-school freshman who is extremely intelligent and perfectly well-adjusted) didn’t talk until she was 2-1/2. Good enough. I could wait.

But then my aunt, who works for Parents as Teachers, expressed concern and put me in touch with our county’s Infant Toddler Services organization. It took about two minutes for them to determine that Maribeth needed all kinds of help. (I immediately flashed back to the Seinfeld episode when Jerry told George: “YOU NEED A TEAM.” ) Obviously, she needed help with speech, as rather than committing to learn English, at age 2-1/2 she was inventing her own language. “Yes” was a series of “eeee-eeee-eeee!” monkey screeches. Animals were simply called by whatever sounds they made. To get some handle on Maribethese, the speech therapist asked me to compile a list of her “words” (note that one of the few real words she could pronounce was DVD, which demonstrated her communication priorities):

  • Aaa!!! — Abby Cadabby
  • aaa — apples
  • again
  • ah-coe — closed/open
  • ah-doo — Play-Doh
  • am — animals
  • a-tah — apple sauce
  • ataw — guitar
  • Big Bird
  • ba — ball
  • bah — bottle
  • bah/pah — bed
  • bah — bath
  • be — spoon
  • beh — pillow
  • buh — bubbles
  • buh — button (van door opener and garage door opener)
  • buh — brush/comb
  • bye-bye (also means “no, take it away”)
  • ca — chocolate
  • Ca — Oscar
  • cheek
  • cheese (for picture taking)
  • Ckck — cookie, Cookie Monster
  • cuh — crayons, color
  • cuh — square
  • Da — Dad
  • da — guys (Sesame Street figurines)
  • Dae — Zoe
  • dah — dolphin
  • De — Kate
  • do — down
  • duh — drum
  • Duh — Bert
  • duh — Fringy (her special blanket)
  • DVD
  • ee — ear
  • Ee — Ernie
  • Eh — Ella
  • eh — alphabet magnets
  • Em — Elmo
  • eye
  • eyebrow
  • foe — fork
  • gih — bike
  • Guh — Grover
  • ha — hat
  • hah (as in hop) — bunny, Piglet
  • hah! — balloon
  • haih — hair
  • he — happy birthday (in pictures)
  • heh — head
  • hessah — kisses
  • hi
  • hi-see — horsey (stick horse)
  • Kkkkkkkkk — chair (as in, “I want to sit in my chair and eat.”)
  • kuh — duck
  • Ma — Mom
  • muh — mouth
  • Muh — Murray
  • nigh-nigh (as in night-night) — baby
  • no
  • no — nose
  • nom — milk/drink
  • oh — oval
  • oh no
  • see — shoes, socks
  • she — change (as in diaper)
  • shoo — shirt
  • si — swing
  • ta — camera
  • tee — teeth, toothbrush
  • tee — tree
  • Teh —Telly
  • tih — fish
  • too — stool
  • uh-buh — umbrella
  • uh-oh
  • Uh-wa-wa-wa (as in “one”) — The Count
  • up
  • wa — water
  • wa — wristwatch
  • wawawa — watch (as in DVD)
  • wuh — blanket

(Yes, “wuh,” which seems like her giving the middle finger to English — “I’m not even going to try for you people; you figure it out.”)

In addition, she (or we) needed help with her behavior. Everything she did had to be her idea and had to be done in her predetermined order — lining up her Sesame Street figurines, putting together puzzles, etc. So in an attempt to loosen her up, the therapist who visited us each week would hide a couple of her figurines or dole out puzzle pieces one at a time (and not in the right order). Maribeth would respond by piling all her blankets on my lap, sprawling on them and wailing with rage. Experiencing enough of this behavior when she was unprovoked, I could never summon the will to do this to her when the therapist was gone, but Ella and Kate were delighted to have permission to mess with her from time to time.

One of Maribeth’s favorite pastimes was piling a mountain of toys on the floor and then sitting in the middle and kicking them. Her therapist suggested that we rub her feet three times a day, experimenting with lotions, brushes, loofahs, etc., in the hope that the sensory stimulation would decrease her need to kick the toys. When I was explaining this to the rest of the family and said, “It only has to be five or 10 minutes, not an hour,” Ella responded, “How about 10 seconds?”

The team was originally going to include a therapist to help with Maribeth’s extremely picky eating (if there was anything on her high chair tray that did not appear absolutely delicious to her, she would drop it piece by piece onto the floor), but considering all of the other challenges we needed to address, we decided the food issues could wait. There’s only so much upheaval our household (or my sanity, anyway) can withstand.

Home visits with the therapist continued until Maribeth started preschool at age 3. At the time, I could not imagine how she was going to adjust to that (see here), but after the first day (when I had to leave her screaming in the classroom), she LOVED it. She had a wonderful teacher: Missawissis (Ms. Melissa) was all that is kind and good and beautiful, and she helped Maribeth make a lot of progress but also determined that because of significant gaps in her social development, she needed additional intervention. This year Maribeth attends a special Teaching Intensive Play and Programming Skills (TIPPS) program where she and her classmates are taught how (and gently prodded) to interact. For example, this week her job is “straw helper,” so at snack time she has to approach each “friend” and ask, “What do you need?” and wait for the classmate to respond, “I need a straw!” It’s unbearably cute. Every Monday Ms. Tina (who is also kind and good and beautiful) asks each child what he or she did on the weekend. (“We heard you went to ‘the other Walmart’ over spring break, but you didn’t buy the grapes because they were too expensive,” Ms. Tina told me today. Awesome. Here I took her to a movie theater for the first time to see Cinderella so she’d have a good spring-break memory, but Walmart ends up being the top story.) The kids also learn strategies for dealing with strong emotions; when Kate was upset last week, Maribeth counseled: “It sounds like you need a strategy.” (This worked about as well for Kate as it does when we suggest it to Maribeth every time she’s gearing up for a fit — “I DON’T WANT A STRATEGY!!!” — but it’s a nice idea.)

The TIPPS program has made a world of difference in Maribeth’s development. Today her speech therapist was describing how Maribeth used to let classmates walk all over her but has learned to speak up and say, “Hey, that’s mine,” or “I don’t like that” (sentiments she has absolutely no problem expressing at home). Her language skills are on target for her age; now her main area of need is learning to ask for help. To test her one day, Ms. Tina put a complex task in her “work box” to see if Maribeth would figure it out or ask for assistance. Since she totally runs the show at our house and has no problem hollering at me to fetch her snacks and juice and wipe her bottom umpteen times a day, I was surprised to hear that she sat meekly and watched Ms. Tina walk around the classroom, too shy to ask for help. So her goals for the next year are to make requests of peers and teachers and to carry on verbal exchanges with peers. Considering that she evidently “married” a kid on the playground the other day, I guess she’s off to a good start.

Maribeth will go to kindergarten in the fall, and her special-education services are expected to taper off. As I look back on the last 2-1/2 years, I am amazed (I had forgotten how crazy life was) and extremely grateful for the knowledgeable people who recognized problems and offered strategies to deal with them. I can’t give high enough praise to Infant Toddler Services and our school district and teachers; I don’t want to think about the difficulties Maribeth might have faced next year without their help. I didn’t want to need any intervention, but I am thankful for it. I’m also grateful for the reassurance these professionals have offered: Today they said that Maribeth’s habit of drawing the same thing 10 times in a row is likely just because she enjoys repeating a task she feels confident with rather than a sign of OCD. Whew. I still haven’t ruined her yet.



  1. Amara said:

    You are a great mom. 🙂 I love how much you love your girls.

    March 26, 2015
    • mommypig said:

      Thank you! 🙂

      March 27, 2015
  2. Janelle said:

    You are such a beautiful woman, inside and out. Your words brought me to tears. As moms we are much too hard on ourselves.

    March 27, 2015
    • mommypig said:

      Aw, Janelle! Thank you!

      March 27, 2015

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