Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted from the article, “Breaking the Language Barrier” that appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine.
Language and communication – we use them to get our needs met, express ourselves and bond with others. Except, that is, if your child is on the autism spectrum. The one comment I hear most from other parents of children with ASD is that they just wish their child could communicate “better.” However, given the structure of the English language, this is not an easily learned skill. Our language is filled with prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, idioms and metaphors, clichés – all pretty foreign concepts to our kids who think in literal terms and tend to learn specific to general, rather than the other way around, as do typical kids.
Some easy ways I discovered to improve communication with (my son) Brett follow. You can use them with your child with autism, no matter where he or she falls on the spectrum. These techniques are not, in themselves, end products. They are actions meant to be adjusted and played with, so they become relevant for your child.
First and foremost, before you try to communicate with your child, before you try to teach him anything, get his attention. This may be as simple as calling his name, or you may have to physically move your child’s face to look you in the eye. Children give indications of attention in different ways, and for some kids with ASD, eye contact is not it. You know your child best. It’s not important how you get his attention just as long as you get it. Every time. Otherwise, you are probably just wasting your breath.
Show and Tell
Children with ASD are very visual. Use this strength in teaching them language. Expand their vocabulary by bringing their attention to people, places and things, giving them names as you point them out. The grocery store is a great place to do this. If your child is not yet ready for the grocery store, start at home. But don’t just take your child by the hand and lead him around giving names to everything in sight. This makes it seem too much like work. Make it fun. Be creative! Sing the words sometimes for a change of pace.
For some kids, show and tell is best started with labeling items around the house. Again, these kids are visual and the added benefit of seeing the word in addition to hearing the word can go a long way toward better understanding. Plus, it helps the very concrete learner understand that the word is a representation of the solid object, setting the stage for better reading skills. Point out the things that are going into the shopping cart, into your pot of soup, or a few pictures in a magazine or video. There are opportunities all around you. When the child is familiar with people, places and things you can move on to more abstract language, like verbs and pronouns. Point out someone running in the park and say, “She is running” or a child swinging and say, “He is swinging.” Encourage him to repeat after you. Also, most of us have icons, or flash cards around our homes. Here’s a simple game you can play with them. When you first get in the car show your child an icon of someone on a bike, say, “bike” or “man on a bike” and then see who can find it first. This will also help him generalize concepts if he has only been relating to himself, his things, his home. The bike icon can now mean other bikes, as well as his bike.
All For One and Fun For All
Children are obviously more receptive to fun than work, and this is true at any age. Word games can be fun. They can be simple or more complex, yet are effective in teaching important language concepts along the way. The following games can help your child learn “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, and “how” questions.
Adult “When do you turn on the lights? When you ride your bike?“
Child “No” (answer for him if he doesn’t know, i.e. model for him)
Adult “When it gets cold outside?”
Adult “When it gets dark?”
Adult “Yes, you turn on the lights when it gets dark. Great job!”
Adult “Why do you brush your teeth? Because the dog barked?”
Adult “Because you’re hungry?”
Adult “Because you need to clean your teeth.”
AdultA “Yes, you brush your teeth because you need to clean them. Good job!”
Games like this will help your child connect “when” with a time or an event, “why” with a reason, etc. Use your imagination and have fun. Kids love it when their parents act silly. You can even pretend you don’t know the answer; when your child figures it out he’ll be thrilled.
Another word game you can play uses prepositions such as in, over, behind, under, after, and between. Here are a few examples:
When you are making the bed throw the blanket over your head and tell your child you are under the blanket. Take it off and say, “I’m not under the blanket.” Let him try, too. After all, that is the fun part! Have him help load the washing machine and say, “Put the socks in, put the pants in, etc. When the clothes are all washed and dried have him help take the clothes out: pants out, shirts out, socks out. On a nice day you can go for a walk and find things to walk around. Tell him you are walkingaround a tree, around a bush, around a rock, around a corner. When you are repeating things over and over, say them in an exaggerated or sing-song way to make it a little more fun. It might seem boring to you, but lots (lots) of repetition helps.
Always model for your child what he should say or do. This just means you show him exactly what you want him to say or do so he can imitate your words or actions. Some things may seem too basic to model, but remember that our kids don’t learn from watching as easily as do other kids. When in doubt, model. For example, if he takes you by the hand to lead you to the cookie jar, point to the cookies and say, “I want a cookie.” You can even shorten that response for kids who are more language challenged by pointing and saying, “Cookie, please” or “Want cookie” or even just “cookie.” You know your child’s capabilities; adjust how you model accordingly.
As he becomes more proficient with his skills you may only need to prompt him. For example, if he is indicating that he wants the cookie, point to the cookie jar and say, “I want…” If he doesn’t answer try it again and say, “I want….cookie.” Give him a couple of seconds before you say “cookie” so he knows you expect him to say something after hearing “I want…”. Some kids need more time to process to get a response out verbally; be patient. And, of course, be sure to reward him for any attempts, not just for successes.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Repetition is important. Let me say it again: Repetition is important. Repetition helps the brain store information in your child’s rote (automatic) memory. Every time you put a hotdog on his plate say “hotdog.” After a few times you can show him the hotdog and ask, “What is this?” If he answers “hotdog” great! If not, repeat the question for him. If he tries to say “hotdog” but it comes out garbled, point to your mouth and slowly repeat the word with the correct pronunciation. Repetition can get boring pretty quickly for parents or teachers, but we need to remember that staying calm and patient with the process is key. Kids with autism needs lots more repetition than we might have previously thought. I repeat: lots more repetition. Some tasks take longer for a child, even though they might seem easier to us. Also, pay attention to signs of frustration or times when teaching may not be effective. If a child is already tired, hungry, frustrated or approaching sensory overload, it’s not a good time to work on language skills. If you’re getting frustrated, stop the task and return to it another time. Remember, working on these skills is supposed to be simple and fun – for both of you.
Watch What You Say
You can really confuse your child by using idioms such as, “I’ve got a green thumb” or “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Remember, kids on the spectrum are very literal. If you say you’re “tongue tied” he may actually try to look in your mouth to see this oddity. Adults in conversation with other adults often use such figures of speech. Once, after a conversation on the phone I hung up and said, “I almost stuck my foot in my mouth.” Brett was listening and said, “Mom, there’s no way you could ever get your foot in your mouth!” Although I am not suggesting that you completely change how you talk, just make sure you’re aware of what you say, and explain the idiom after you use it. Do use extra care, however, when giving instructions or comments directly to your child or student with autism. “Hop to it!” or “Do you have ants in your pants?” can result in some pretty interesting responses from your child if he or she doesn’t know what you mean.
Use Natural Settings
While language skills are important, we don’t want to spend all of our free time drilling them to the point of exhaustion. Quite the opposite, actually. Our kids get pushed all day long to stay on task, to focus, to listen. Sometimes just getting them to stay at school (never mind doing any work) is a feat in itself. By the time they get home from school or their behaviorist and OT leave for the day, our kids just want to hang out, relax and maybe even stim for awhile. Incorporate these language-boosting ideas into your daily routine in natural settings. Don’t drag him away from his video game to point out and name all the vegetables in your refrigerator. Wait until dinnertime to label foods and bedtime to ask him why we go to bed.
Working on these skills just a few times a day can really make a difference. A couple of years ago at the beginning of summer, I began to work with my son on “wh” and “how” questions, just two or three times a day for five to ten minute intervals. When he went back to school in the fall his teachers immediately recognized the difference in his language. At other times, it’s taken lots more repetition over a longer period of time to master new skills.
Teaching language is not always as cut and dried (pardon the idiom) as this article may seem to make it. But there is hope. While simple, these techniques are effective. Play with them, modify them to suit your child’s needs. Keep searching for the keys that unlock the doors of your child’s mind. Even with the right key some of those doors are slow to open, so give it some time and be patient. It’s definitely worth the wait for us, and for the child, language is the doorway to the world.
Featured Organization/Contributor: Autism Asperger’s Digest
We thank Autism Asperger’s Digest for allowing us to reprint their copyrighted article.
About the Author: Karen Emigh is mother of two boys, and author of three wonderfully illustrated and colorful children’s books: Who Took My Shoe?, Herman’s Hiding Places: Discovering Up, In, Under and Behind, and Bookworm: Discovering Idioms, Sayings and Expressions (all published by Future Horizons).