The boy who wouldn’t stop talking

When Stephen came to us 15 months ago, he talked nonstop. I don’t mean that he was conversational. I mean that he yelled a broken orphanage-Chinese equivalent of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” over and over again to get our attention. He would talk at us (without actually paying attention to our responses), talk to himself, sing to himself, amd did not regulate his volume. He showed little evidence of hearing or active listening. He returned to the same topics and words repeatedly and seemingly without trigger:  “Bus! Airplane! Bus! Tiger! Airplane!” (These he said repeatedly both in Chinese and eventually in English.)

It was kind of unexpected. Of all the difficult behaviors that you might expect an institutionalized child to have — meltdowns, self-soothing behaviors like head banging and repetitive rocking, lying, hoarding, violence (none of which Stephen actually has) — it was his incessant unlistenable and non-contextual talking that I found most difficult to tolerate. Stephen’s talking was downright noxious. His bewildered grandparents, not knowing how else to describe him or express the emotional responses he elicited, noted that he was ‘not well behaved’ and ‘talks nonstop.’ None of us wanted to say it. We all thought he was awful.

I couldn’t put my finger on why Stephen’s talking struck such a nerve. I thought maybe he was just a talkative personality and I, a quiet and introspective person, had somehow gotten the most extroverted child anyone could imagine. I thought I would just have to get used to this strange and unlikeable personality quirk.

It’s only after a year in our family that I understand why I found Stephen’s talking so noxious. It’s because it was contextually irrelevant and socially inappropriate. Stephen’s talking was his biggest and most obvious manifestation of being an unparented and institutionalized child. He didn’t know to use speech to communicate or converse. He talked either to stimulate himself or to get an adult to look at him.

It took the first few months to extinguish the repetitive “Mama! Hey! Mama! Hey!” (We taught him that this wouldn’t get him what he wanted by ignoring it.) Stephen had to learn who to talk to, what to say, when to say it, how to say it and why we speak. He had to learn how to listen and reply in conversation. This took regular and repeated exposure to safe and trusted people including his parents, teachers, and classmates.

Before Stephen came home, I had assumed we would be dealing with unlearning stereotypical orphanage behaviors such as food hoarding, lying and attention seeking. It turns out Stephen didn’t hoard food, he didn’t lie and he didn’t do horrible things to seek attention. What I learned, is that there are pervasive and sometimes unconscious social norms we take for granted, that a fully institutionalized child may not know. How to carry on a conversation is one of those.