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Joan Robson tells how a diagnosis of specific language impairment opened up a whole new world for her son 

My son, Tom, seems like any other fourteen-year-old kid, except, if you talk to him, he may not understand you. If you talk too quickly, in an unfamiliar accent or in a complicated manner, or if there is too much background noise, you will lose him. He may appear disinterested, slow or confused, he may even appear to understand you, but his reply may be monosyllabic and he might cut you off to avoid any further communication if he feels out of his depth and that he is floundering.

He did not babble as a baby and we put his late talking down to him having two older sisters whom he was content to follow around. He appeared to have good visual memory and developed this as a coping strategy in school. He could read a list of words and know how to spell them but, if you asked him to spell a word he had not previously seen, he could not do it.

Tom has specific language impairment (SLI). Children with the condition struggle at school and as the gap between their language abilities and those of their peers widens, so their ability to cope diminishes. Prior to diagnosis at the age of ten years (which is unusually late), he led an isolated and bullied life at school. Other pupils excluded him from playtime activities; he did not receive invites to parties and, despite continually trying to join in, his advances met with constant rejection by all but one of his class. He did not understand why he was shunned at school and this lead to behavioural difficulties at home.

Trying to negotiate the fine line between being empathetic with Tom and instilling behavioural boundaries was all the more difficult as four near-age siblings were also in the mix. There was tension within the family and it culminated in us splitting up for holidays for a number of years. This offered Tom a break from his daily struggles, and his siblings some respite from the pressures caused by their inability to truly understand why we were more lenient with him than we were with them.  

After visits to various professionals, we received a diagnosis of severe SLI. This was as much of a relief to Tom as it was to us. At last, we knew what was wrong and could address his issues with knowledge and understanding.

He now attends Moor House School in Oxted, Surrey where he has made steady and pleasing progress, emotionally, socially and educationally. One of the most important things about being in such a highly specialised school for Tom has been acceptance by his peers, as prior to joining the school, he was disturbed by not belonging to any social group.

He has been fortunate in meeting some incredibly passionate, professional people who have worked very hard at making sure his needs are met, and he owes his continued development to them.

He is an affectionate and sensitive child and, along the way, he has learned compassion, empathy and gratitude. He will not tolerate bullying of others and will take action if he comes across it. Lately, his ability to play with language has become more apparent and this progress brings us immense joy.  Small things, like seeing him read a newspaper from cover to cover, when previously he was only interested in the TV page, can make my heart soar with joy and gratitude. He now embraces the world of words and information that previously only brought him a sense of failure and acute pain.

His relationship with his siblings goes from strength to strength and our hope for his future is that he enters adulthood at peace with himself.


Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 46: May/June 2010.

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