The most powerful insight I have gained during my 30 years of inspiring our beautiful children to verbally communicate is the knowledge that that all growth starts with acceptance of our children as they are. This cannot be overlooked or bypassed.
It is the wings upon which all change occurs. If you want your child, or the child you are working with to learn and grow, this is the place to start. It lies in with the belief that the love you already have for your child does not have to be put aside as you begin or continue your journey to help them. Rather, it must be the place you start and fuel every action you take.
Spiritual leader Matt Kahn began one of his workshops asking participants to say these two lines out loud:
I see you.
And I like what I see.
Doesn’t that quote bring a smile to your face?
Imagine if our children on the autism spectrum saw this smile each time they reached out and looked at their teachers, caregivers and educators. A smile that says, “I see all of who you are, and I like it, all of it. I like you when you talk me, and I like when you don’t talk to me. I like you when you respond to me, and I like when you don’t. I like you when you play just like the other children, and I like you when you make sounds and movements that look very different.”
This accepting and welcoming attitude gives our children no reason to move away, and every reason to continue to reach out and communicate with us. Don’t we all move towards people who delight in us and show us that they enjoy all of who we are? Unfortunately for our children, their experience of people is often the opposite. The people in their lives spend the majority of their time looking at them with the focus of “fixing,” changing and/or stopping. Although this is done in a sincere effort to help our children, you know how this feels when you’re treated that way. It certainly doesn’t feel like help.
If you implement the four strategies below with an attitude of loving acceptance and enjoyment of everything your child does and is, the doorways of communication can swing open!
1. Love what they love
Making a true connection with our children is a key part of inspiring them to want to verbally communicate with us. Most of us are more likely to connect with someone we have something in common with.
For example, wouldn’t you would be more likely to gravitate towards a person who wears a T-shirt with the name of your favorite band scrawled across it? Our children with autism are no different. They, too, will gravitate towards people who like what they like. The only difference is that our children tend to have unusual interests that are not mirrored in our society.
Maybe your child really likes to dangle a piece of string, or watch something that spins, or talk about volcanos or washing machines. Whatever your child likes, you can like, too. Whatever he/she is doing, you can do it with the child. Make his/her interest your interest. If the child likes to talk about washing machines, become an expert on washing machines! It your child likes to line things up, make that your next hobby. If trains are popular, numbers, Dora the Explorer…whatever it is, enjoy it, too.
In my three decades of working with our children, this is the number-one connection-creator. Love what they love. Do what they do.
2. Listen to your child
When we think of teaching verbal communication, our instinct is to talk more. But the opposite is true. The key is to talk less and listen more.
No matter whether your child has yet to say a word or is already speaking in sentences, he/she is probably saying a lot more than you realize. If we are busy talking and filling in the silence, we don’t give ourselves the chance to fully listen to what our children are already saying.
When our children begin to talk, they may start by whispering and talking under their breath. This is very hard to hear if we are talking. When our children make sounds or say sentences that do not make immediate sense to us, we can easily turn off our listening without realizing that this is what we’re doing. Why would our children continue to grow their verbal communication skills if we are not listening?
Next time you are alone with your child, experiment with listening rather than talking. Cut the amount you talk in half, Once you’ve done that, cut it in half again. I think you will be surprised at what you hear.
This silence will give our children the chance to practice talking.
If we are taking up all the space with our talking, we are unintentionally telling our children to listen to us versus talk to us. But if we are listening (not pretending to listen—but really listening), we create a language space that our children can fill.
3. Celebrate all verbalizations
It’s important to celebrate our children’s current level of communication. Celebrate all sounds, all words, and all sentences, even if you do not understand them and even if you’ve heard it a million times before.
What we focus on grows. Our celebrations communicate to our children that we are listening to and enjoying what they are saying. This will encourage our children to continue to talk to us. That is what we want! The more our children vocalize, the more practice they will get, the more likely it is that their communication skills will grow.
The key to celebrating is to be joyful and verbally specific. For example, when your child makes a sound, you could say, “You just said, “mmm,” that’s a great sound!” When he/she says a word you could say, “You said “Ball” amazingly—when you do that, I know what to get you!” When he/she shares a comment with you, you could say, “I really like it when you talk to me, I love knowing what you are thinking!” Say it in your own way.
The thing to keep in mind is to be specific about the fact that it is his/her verbal communication that you like. That way the child will know what it is that you like and do more of it. The more we highlight what are children are saying now, the more they will talk. It is impossible to over-celebrate, so become a celebrating maniac! Bring on the exclamation marks! You will be rewarded with more vocalizations, words, and sentences from your wonderful child.
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4. Respond quickly
Once we have listened and celebrated, it is time to take action. An important reason we speak to another person is because that person responds and takes action based on our words. If they didn’t, we would find another way to communicate, such as drawing or using gestures.
Again, our children are no different. When their verbal communications are not responded to, they use crying, pulling people by the arm and hitting to get our attention. Sound familiar?
Let your child know the power of their sounds, words, and sentences by responding super quickly to them. We want them to know that all their vocalizations are useful.
This applies whether your child is saying simple sounds, full words, phrases, or paragraphs. The key is to respond quickly. Not after you finish cleaning. Not after you finish tying your tie. Right now.
If your child says “eee,” run and get his/her something to eat (or sing them a song or slide a stuffed animal down a slide). The particulars of what you do matter less than doing it with speed and excitement. If your child asks what time it is (for the hundredth time that hour), enthusiastically tell him/her the time! We want to help our children see the connection between their sounds and us moving.
Of course, these four strategies are not the whole story. That would take up an entire book (which is why I wrote one). But, if you follow the approach here, I think you will be very, very excited about the response you get from your child. I know that you might sometimes feel overwhelmed or lost (don’t we all!), but every journey begins with a single step, and now you have the first four!
This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together