I spend a lot of time watching my grandkids - especially the youngest ones. They have me totally convinced that the human brain is truly amazing - a sponge for new learning, perhaps most dramatically when it comes to language.
The youngest is almost two now, and her vocabulary is expanding by leaps and bounds. She eagerly repeats anything she hears, and plays around with new words and concepts as if they were toys from Wal-Mart. Just the other day, I teased her with "procrastinate" as she tried to avoid bedtime, and then "precocious" as she teased me back by repeating my first word over and over again. I am quite sure the next step will be for her to surprise us by using one or the other of these words in the right context, totally unprompted!
And her older sister, who resisted with all her might my grandma/teacher efforts to learn letters and numbers until just a few months ago, now carries paper and pencil with her around the house asking any available adult how to spell the names of everyone she knows, every word she hears, etc. She just turned five and notices words and letters everywhere she goes.
The brain is obviously programmed from very early on to figure out language patterns and make sense of both the spoken and written language (or languages) to which they are exposed. Learning takes place with or without structured practice, but naturally develops more rapidly in situations where the child has more exposure and encouragement.
So what if the child is unable to speak? Or unable to hold a writing tool? Unable to attend to anything for more than a second or two at time?
Unfortunately, we have made some very poor assumptions about this for far too long and many kids have been declared "cognitively disabled" because of our misunderstanding.
Young kids with autism, Down syndrome, or other conditions might be limited in many ways, but their brains are functioning in much the same way - listening, watching, and constantly learning. Their brains look for patterns in what they see and what they hear, and their brains are programmed to figure out the language(s) that surround them -- just like their peers who can walk, talk, use writing tools and ask questions.
The lesson I have learned is that young children with disabilities (according to our current labeling system - maybe someday we'll drop the labels entirely) deserve to be exposed to an environment rich in written and spoken language. If they are unable to ask questions, the adults in their lives must provide even more in the way of explanation and stimulation to encourage the development of their brains in those critical early years. How tragic to think that for far too long we thought we were doing what was best for them by placing kids like this in institutions or special schools.
I remember my personal "training" in such an institution, where I was instructed to speak to my students in very simple language, using only basic vocabulary and always using the same short words or phrases - so as not to confuse them, maybe? Many of the parents received the same sort of training. We tried to follow the rules, but fortunately for the kids involved, most of them lived in families where books were plentiful and dinnertime conversation was lively and stimulating. As for me, their teacher, I simply could not play the game that way. I had to be myself, had to interact with all of my students as if they understood every word I was speaking. (Whew - lucky for all of us, as they eventually were able to show me they understood all too well!)
Thanks to all for being so patient and forgiving. My hope is that others might learn from my experience - in this area and so many others.