Question: My non-verbal four-year-old son started hitting people and himself and laughing. We thought he was just testing us, but the behavior has gotten worse over the past few months. We don’t know how to make him understand that he can’t do this. I think he’s frustrated because he can’t speak.—Christian
Answer: This story is familiar. Hitting others is understandable if you look at it from the child’s perspective. Imagine a child who is four and knows what he wants to communicate and cannot connect with language—how frustrating would that be? If you react to the hitting with punishment without addressing the underlying issue of language, your child’s behavior will deteriorate, and you will be beside yourselves. The question is, How do we stop the hitting? The answer: Let’s get your child to talk!
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Head Banging & other Self Harming Behavior
The image that I want you to hold is the title of my book, Uniquely Normal: Tapping the Reservoir of Normalcy to Treat Autism. Tapping into the reservoir of language is precisely what needs to be done. Your child needs to bring language to the surface. When this happens, language becomes his first language, not hitting or screaming.
Put your child in a situation, or perhaps the situation will come naturally, where language can be elicited from the child. Be patient. You may need to give the help he needs to express meaningful language. For example, a non-verbal girl who came to my office loved watering a plant that I have. One day I gave her the watering can with no water in it. She looked at the can with a bewildered look on her face. What did I do? What did I say to her?
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I said nothing, waiting to see if she would be able to generate language from within. As long as she was thinking, I patiently waited. Patience. After about thirty seconds, she said, “Empty.” That was her first meaningful word! She finally understood what language was all about— and she didn’t need a cookie or reinforcer to continue talking. Imagine how excited she felt to discover a more effective way to communicate with the world around her.
Each child is unique. Another child needed to hear the word before he said his first meaningful sound. We were at a playground and he sat on a swing. I asked him if he wanted a push. He said nothing, so I pushed and stopped the swing about thirty times because I saw he was paying attention to the questions: “What should I do? Do you want me to push you?” His answer was to scream. I wasn’t giving up. Why should I? After about 30 tries, he finally said “Psh.” What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Within a couple of hours, by a lake, he started saying more words. Such as “water.”
Feel confident that your child can learn to talk with the right circumstances and therapy. For more examples, refer to the first four cases in Uniquely Normal that deal with non-verbal kids.
This article was featured in Issue 76 – Raising A Child with Autism