If you speak with me in person, you might not believe I am the same person as the one you have read. There is a vast difference in my verbal and written communication abilities. Just because I have the vocabulary and can type my thoughts as quickly as I think them does not mean I can find the words and articulate them enough to verbalize them on demand.
Majoring in Public Relations and Communication in college helped me with many of my communication challenges in respect to learning communication models and analyzing receptive communication. It also helped me to identify ambiguous words and ask for clarity. It also helped me in my attempts to hear patterns in speech and word choices and gain an understanding of how framing can reveal what people actually think and feel in a conversation when I am not correctly interpreting social cues or facial expressions. It helped; but, after class, I was thrilled to put on my headphones before briskly walking across campus with my music on so I did not have to listen to any chatter. I did not remove my headphones until the professor arrived and was ready to begin lecture.
Perhaps the explanation for my Autism going under the radar so long was because I stayed under the radar due to my constant miscommunication issues. It is frustrating even as an adult. I would much rather just send a text or email-and even those are long proving the struggle. But all the above is stated as yet an adult with Autism and further one who still breaks into tears upon the stress of the sheer act of conversation and the pain of miscommunication.
As a mother of children with Autism who were non-verbal until they were almost five and knows they continue to have communication challenges even after speech therapy – I know the pain from both perspectives of parent and child. Here, I would like to share two very different methods in two very different children to begin communicating needs and building speech.
One method you may be familiar with is called PEC books. If you are not familiar with it, PEC is an acronym for “picture exchange communication” books. However, I found a flaw in what we were given thanks to my own Autism and was able to tweak a perfectly effective solution.. When Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital sent me home with their PEC book I could see immediately where it fell short by my own literal thinking-the objects in the pictures my child was meant to point to communicate were drawings and not the literal thing my child wanted or needed to communicate. Drawings are ambiguous.
Thanks to the invention of smart phones I was able to take a picture on the spot of every single person, place and thing my child came into contact with, needed and wanted. And as my Autism goes I grouped these photos into specific categories. I took pictures of our car to indicate leaving and then each store front from the parking lot, I took pictures of each park, church, therapy, and took pictures of the therapist he was seeing. I created a “PLACES” collage with a collage maker application. I then took pictures of HIS cup, HIS favorite foods, snacks and drinks and built him a menu for him to point to exactly which food he wanted individually. I grouped them by breakfast foods, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks etc. With the collage maker application I was able to do this in moments, print, laminate and use a hole puncher to use a key ring to bind. But what was more is after the collages were made they were saved for use on the go, even outside. The key is to literally have picture exchange communication for their own needs. Initially, for them to understand the NEED for functional communication you have to begin with their own desires and respond to them. Take pictures of bath time, bed time, their tooth brush, and their personal toys and games.
For them to appreciate communicating you will have to respond to what they point to. When we started the PEC menu, it was a bit crazy the first week. When we gave him his food we would show him the picture, point to it and say the word. The next day or so he was already pointing to items, so, we responded quickly in delivery as he appreciated the function of communicating his desires. Quickly, he caught on to the function and was thrilled to exercise for the first time his ability to have a demand met-and he had a blast with it. It was liberating for him. We were giving him three or four different items and even handing him things he did not even really want but it was more of a necessary life button he had just learned to push.
If we had not responded he would have lost trust in the only method of two-way communication he had besides screaming while we run through thirty things guessing upsetting him more each time we were incorrect. So, I urge you, do not say no. Get up 100 times and deliver -just fail to add Oreos to the PEC book-surprise treats are great. Always attempt to get them to say the word but make it fun and not forced-the words will come. Pressured speech is also frustrating and I will address that in the next tip. You have to prove function of communication first. Imagine four years of not being able to so much as point to a need. Be sure to take a picture of your home also so when you are out you can point to the picture and say “going home”.
Eventually, you can build your child’s vocabulary with pictures of YOUR couch, tv, potty, table, chairs etc. I cannot emphasize enough the need to clearly explain words “and”, “or” and “but”. Go watch Little School House Rock’s “Conjunction Junction” to understand why these words are so difficult for them to jump thought tracks this way. So much language we use are terms they do not understand. As speech comes in be sure to ask your child if they know what the word you used means. Do not assume.
Another method I have recently discovered is quite sweet to say the least-singing. It is no secret that children learn through songs but this is a whole different level to what measure this is required in our home. My littlest one we noticed at a year old acts out entire scenes from movies but was not talking. She can sing songs and actually has quite a vocabulary of about 25 words and a few phrases. This sounds right on the mark for a typical child but there is a striking, although adorable, difference in her- and if parents are not careful it can go right under the radar.
She only echoes, repeats and sings. She will repeat back those words if we say them in a sing-song manner but she is not using them to communicate for the function of communicating. She can sing her A,B,C’s , Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, and a few other songs, she can count to ten at 28 months old, she can make the sounds of every animal in the Brown Bear Book and her sounds puzzles, but she only speaks through song and sounds. She is a most enchanting darling and I have zero complaints over her adorable ways. But, when it comes to her needs, just as her brothers did she will make sounds and complain “eh, eh, eh” and increase intensity until her overtures are met with response.
I know that she can repeat the sound “ma-ma” and may attempt to insist she say “ma-ma” each time she needs me but she is offended by that. She hates pressured speech. When I was trying to push her to use the word “cup” when she wanted her cup she would become very agitated, offended even, at the exercise. This is when I realized pressured speech was certainly not going to be effective. I had been trying it from the beginning and it had not worked. But, I knew she loves to sing.
Every word my child has in her vocabulary is through singing with me. And now I am only communicating with her through song. I sing, “let’s go take a bath”. I sing every word I want her to repeat. She still does not say “ma-ma” to me or “da-da” to dad, or call any of her brothers by their names. But I did manage to teach her the word of one of her brothers by singing his name. So when she does gain the sense of functional communication she has the words. They still are not really attached to anything beyond the sound of the sing-song tones. But I can reach her through sing-song tones.
In a matter of about two weeks of earnest singing I have successfully managed to teach her to ask for “cup”, “paci”, and “outside”. These are the first three words she has successfully asked for something so the function of communicating needs is hopefully setting in-even if it is only received in song. This would have been a whole lot more enchanting if God had given me a singing voice. The fact that her first sing-song words were “Thank you” is just as delightful. Now we just have to sing all the words of pictures from her PEC book.
The key to communicating with your child is to find a way to reach them. We have a long way to go even with the older children who do have a vocabulary. Communication involves so much more than words. For one child we need constant pictures for visual communication to reach him and for another child we have to sing-song words and this has not even taught her to functionally communicate yet, but it has helped us find a way TO communicate with her-frankly speaking.