Compliments of Autism Asperger’s Digest March/April 2011 issue
Excerpted from the article, “Breaking the Language Barrier” by Karen Emigh that appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine. Reprinted with permission. The Autism Asperger’s Digest is offering a subscription special during April, to celebrate National Autism Awareness Month. Details follow.
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.
Show and Tell
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
Adult “When do you turn on the lights? When you ride your bike?“
A “Why do you brush your teeth? Because the dog barked?”
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:
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 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
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
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.
Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved.
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