Tatty: We were so excited to have a boy after five girls. I looked forward to learning with him one day, but I feel like our dreams are disappearing.
Rebbi: Even when Tully raises his hand, I can’t call on him. His comments are usually totally unrelated to the material we’re discussing. I’m afraid his classmates will make fun of him.
Tully: We have a contest for answering right, but even though I listen and keep my finger on the place, I never get anything right.
Tully’s parents both arrive for our intake session, and they practically trip over each other in their anxiety to get the words out.
“When Tully started school, everyone talked about how sweet and charming he was,” Tully’s father starts. “That’s all we heard for the first few years. Now he’s in second grade, and suddenly his rebbi tells us he’s completely lost!”
“I knew it,” Tully’s mother interjects. “I knew something was off, but I couldn’t pinpoint what. I even asked the rebbi about it last year, but he brushed it off, saying he’s so well-behaved, maybe he’s just a little immature.”
“I did think he was immature,” Tully’s father admits. “On the first day this year, the rebbi told the class to go out to the hall, and Tully said, ‘There’s no wedding hall in this school!’ I thought he was just being silly.”
“But I knew it was weird,” returns Tully’s mother. “He’s not that kind of kid. He doesn’t pretend to look innocent — he really meant it innocently.”
“He’s in second grade,” Tully’s father says. “How can he not know what ‘Go out to the hall’ means?”
We use language processing to learn things by osmosis. Children with processing difficulties miss the meaning in the world around them.
Language processing is the ability to not only hear language, but understand it. Although English is his first language, Tully can’t decode the words he hears to derive their meaning.
“Can he tell over the parshah at the Shabbos table?” I ask.
Tully’s parents exchange looks. “The parshah is like the cholent,” Tully’s mother says. “It goes something like this: ‘Eliezer went to find his kallah, but on the way Antiochus was fighting and he killed his elephants.’”
Tully’s inability to retell a story is a red flag, a sign that he’s not processing language.
“How’s he doing socially?”
“He was fine until now. But as the kids get more sophisticated, their play starts to revolve less around toys and games and more around hock and jokes.” Tully’s mother bites her lip. “He’s not exactly excluded… but he can’t really participate.”
I call Tully into the room. “Hi, Tully,” I say. “Tell me, do you like school?” Tully nods. “What parshah are you learning in Chumash?”
Tully’s father jumps in. “Chayei Sarah.”
“Tully, what did you learn in Chayei Sarah?”
Tully says, “Sarah was 127 when she was niftar.”
“A hundred twenty-seven what?”
Tully looks uncomprehending.
“How old are you, Tully?”
Tully just looks blank.
Tully knows the answers to these questions, but he doesn’t understand what the information means in a general context.
Tully’s parents report that he is functioning satisfactorily at home. “But homework is a huge issue,” Tully’s father qualifies. “I sit with him for hours every night — literally two or three hours. I try to teach him, pre-teach him, reteach him — it doesn’t go. He doesn’t get the material.” He looks a little desperate as he adds, “If this is what it’s like with Chumash, what’s going to happen in three more years when he starts learning Gemara?”