The Gift of Speech

The 1955-56 American Women's Club of Oslo Scholarship recipient, Bjørg Herdal, received advanced training in speech therapy at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, Missouri.  The following heart-warming story, written by the mother of a non-verbal child who received help from Bjørg, is, no doubt, one of many that could be told about the far-reaching benefit of our Scholarship program.  We are grateful to Jill H. for sharing her son’s story with us.


The Gift of Speech

by Gillian Holby


Twenty-five years ago, as a mother of four children, I was growing ever more concerned about my second son (and third child).  At the age of three, unlike his two older siblings, John was not talking.  I had, or thought I had, a reason:  he was the first of my children to be exposed to a bi-lingual environment.  The others, as toddlers had heard only Norwegian, and learned English later, during lengthy holidays with grandparents in England, when they were at an age when a language can be picked up in a matter of weeks.

But there were other things about John which caused me to be anxious.  Not only did he not speak, but he appeared not to react to speech either.  He lived very much in his own world, and when he did care to share ours, he was never any trouble, just a happy little boy.  In retrospect, I cannot really understand why I was not far more alarmed, but with an eighteen-year-old, a thirteen-year-old and a one-year-old, in addition to three-year-old John (some family planning!), I suppose I had enough to occupy my mind without letting worries take over to much.

A friend of mine, whose husband was an ENT (ear, nose and throat) professor at Rikshospitalet, was "observing" John one day when she made the startling claim that he was deaf!  I could laugh at this one-the only contact I had with John was through music; he could hum anything, and his preference was Mozart!  I assured her that he was not deaf, but she insisted that there are may forms of deafness, and she would like to arrange for a hearing test.  No sooner said than done.  Two days later, he was tested, and the test proved one thing:  John could hear perfectly the unwrapping of a chocolate bar, the door being opened, a pencil falling on the floor-all done without him being able to see what was happening-but he appeared completely deaf when it came to the sound of the human voice speaking.  He would react to laughter, but not to speech.

This observation led to countless tests, none of which indicated any abnormality.  To my thinking, when a test proved normal, then the child was normal-or so I thought!  The final place of call was at Emma Hjort’s Home for the mentally handicapped.  There, after several hours of "observation", the awful verdict was given:  "John would never be able to speak, never be able to form any kind of contact with another person; he was, in fact, autistic, and would have to be admitted to this Home where he would spend the rest of his life."

I cannot say the world came crashing in on me, because it didn’t.  The Christian faith with which I had been dabbling for some years, very peripherally, suddenly took root and with no effort I found that this faith had a rock-like quality.  I felt strong!  God was giving me the strength I needed, and I could cope.

Six weeks later, John was admitted to Emma Hjort, but not as a resident.  I insisted he stay in his own home, and not being of the generation where mothers have to go out to work, was able both to drive him there and to fetch him.  This happened only twice.  When I saw the truly tragic environment in which John would spend his life, I knew that this was not for him.  To make quite certain I was not being "overly protective", I took a friend, a very brilliant teacher, Else-Marie Skard, out there, and she agreed with me.  From then on, it was a matter of John and me and GOD.  "Woman’s extremity is God’s opportunity"-I had the extremity, and God took the opportunity.  I prayed for wisdom, and was given ideas on how to help my child.  Like the Good Shepherd, He led me into the green pasture, which for me was the American Lutheran Church; where I encountered love and understanding and much support from the women there.  Pastor K lent me a book by Catherine Marshall called Beyond Ourselves, which was an enormous help and encouragement for me in my pilgrimage both to know more about Jesus and through Him to seek help for my child.

Else-Marie Skard noted a marked improvement in John and suggested I seek a second opinion, which she arranged.  We went to see Dr. Willey Olsson, head of the Municipal Child and Youth Psychiatric Department.  We did not tell him about the previous consultation, nor about the diagnosis.  He "observed" John and after a time said, "Well, one thing is certain, he is not autistic; he has good eye contact", and went on to say he believed that there was a malfunction in the  language center of the brain, causing a lack of language execution and comprehension.  He asked me about John’s birth, and on being given the details, believed that this could have been the probable cause.  Else-Marie then told him the entire story, and when he heard that his respected colleague had diagnosed autism, he exclaimed, "Then something has caused a great improvement.  My colleague would never have made such a diagnosis today."  We explained who that "Something" was, and being a Christian, he was very sympathetic.  I asked him where we went from here, and he could only confess that there was no competent person in Norway to deal with this condition, which he then called "aphasia," a term no longer used, as aphasia means loss of speech, and a child who has never spoken has no speech ability to lose!

He was right when he said that there was no one in Norway competent to deal with this condition.  The person who was competent-more than competent-was at the time studying teaching the non-verbal child at St. Louis.  She was a recipient of an American Women’s Club Scholarship:  Bjørg Herdal, affectionately, and for the non-verbal child, needfully, called "Bobbi".

It was not until a year later that I first heard of her.  The then-president of AWC, Sarah R., came up to me in church and asked, "Jill, is it so that John has problems with his speech?"  I told her that was so, and she then told me about Bjørg Herdal, who was here on a brief vacation before returning to the U.S., that this was her field and would I like to meet her?  Would I like to meet her?  Oh, yes!!!  

So Bobbi was brought by Sarah to my home, and thus began John’s entry into the world of communication.  The first thing which amazed Bobbi was the excellent contact John had-he was very sociable and affectionate.  I explained my "methods" (space prohibits going into detail), and in doing so, I had to explain where I had learned them-answers to prayer, and inspiration!  She had to accept this, as some of those methods were so new in child therapy that she knew I could not have read about them in any journal.

Bobbi forgot about her vacation and instead, for the next 6 weeks, devoted her time and energy to teaching John, and then taught me how to continue teaching him after she returned to St. Louis.  The system she taught was the Association Method, developed by the eminent Mildred McGuiness.  (A year previously I had been told about her book by a Dr. Jon Eisenson of Berkley California but when I tried to buy the book, I was told it was being re-printed.  I never did get the book-instead, I got the teacher who was trained by her!!!)

John was a willing student, and his speech developed by leaps and bounds.  This method takes into use the written word.  For example, a very easy word, like "dog", is made up of three different sounds, each requiring a special articulation.  D is the one, then comes the O and finally the G.  John was taught only the beginning of it, D.  Later, he could put it together with O and finally round it off with the G.  John did not say "dog" as others but "d-o-g".  In learning speech this way he also learned to read, and at the age of five-and-a-half, he and I could write notes to each other.  Later on, at the British School, he won a prize for having no spelling errors during a whole years’ spelling tests.  From the time he was 10, I have not needed a dictionary.

When John was six, (AWC member) Sally B-A asked me if I could write a report on his progress and the work Bjørg Herdal was doing.  A friend called to visit me just as I was finished, and she said she would take it down to Sally’s home as she would be passing by.  The next day, when Sally arrived home from church, standing there waiting for her was a friend, Bodil Haugstad.  While Sally was preparing coffee, she said, "Bodil, on my writing desk is an article that I think might interest you".  Bodil read it, and then exclaimed, "This child is just the kind we are looking for, for our new special kindergarten, at Møllerplassen, in Røa!"  Wheels began to spin, and a few weeks later, John began, under the highly-skilled care of Bodil and her co-teachers.  He loved being there, and for the first time was in a Norwegian language environment.  It was clear quite early on that his "contact language" was English, and that is what we had to concentrate on in the early stages.  John stayed at Møllerplassen until he began at the British School, with other seven-year-olds; and the time spent at Møllerplassen with Bodil was an invaluable part of his development.

John completed his formal education, first at the British School, and then in Scotland at the Bathgate Academy.  He then spent one year at Ansgar Bible College here in Norway.  He has worked for the Misjon bak Jernteppet ("Mission to the Iron Curtain Countries"), whose founder was Else-Marie Skard.  He spent a year in London with the Christian "Operation Mobilization".  He is now driving a taxi, but intends to further his education.

Those of you who attend the American Lutheran Church have heard John read the Lessons on many occasions.  He is currently a Sunday School teacher for the older children.  John has traveled extensively in Europe, the States, and the Far East.  This Easter, he is going with a group taking medical supplies and Bibles to Romania.  He is now brushing up on the German he learned in school for his trip to Eastern Europe during the summer.  Speech is obviously not a problem for him.

When I think back and remember hearing the head doctor of Emma Hjort’s Home tell me that I could write him off -- that I had 3 other children; that this one I must forget as he would never, ever, be able to communicate; then I can only, firstly, go on my knees and thank God, and then with my most heartfelt gratitude say "thank you" to the AWC who has done, and is doing, such remarkable work in sponsoring Norwegians for post-graduate studies in the United States.  Without Bjørg Herdal, I doubt if John would have had the language ability he has today.  And John is far from the only child in this country who has benefited from Bobbi’s teaching and care.  Many, many young people are now leading normal lives thanks to her, and, never-to-forget, thanks to YOU, members of the American Women’s Club of Oslo!

Post Script:  Sally B-A and I were reminiscing the other day and she asked me, "Jill, can’t you write about this for the AWC newsletter?"  I told her I would do so provided John had no objections.  I asked him this morning and he replied, "Not at all, Mother".  So here it is, the story of a child who could not speak, and an organization and a teacher who gave him "The Gift of Speech". 

This story originally appeared in the Fjord Flyer, April 1990.