As parents to children who are nonverbal or have limited speech, we have to learn some skills of our own to help them learn to communicate better. I have three children with autism myself who are all now extremely verbal, but when they were younger, communication was a constant struggle. Here are a few of the tricks that helped me get my children to talk more, and more clearly communicate with others.
1. Ask open-ended questions
I discovered whenever my eldest son was asked a question, he would almost always respond with “yes.” Then I realized it was the way I was asking questions. For example, when I would ask him, “Do you like the pasta?” I was leading him to always answer, “Yes,” even if he was making a face of disgust. So I began asking him more open-ended questions such as, “Do you like it, or do you not like it?” This gave him the power, in his mind, to communicate either way, so he would communicate more information.
I always found myself trying to coax some conversation out of my children on the ride home from school. As most parents know, kids usually respond with “fine.” For a kid with autism, even that response is great, but sometimes you need more information. I found that if I asked my kids what was different about their day, as they were so focused on routine and differences, then they would offer up answers. I would ask questions such as, “What did you have for lunch?” “Was anyone absent today?” or “Did you have art class today?” (art is not a daily class—once or twice a week at best.) You can also try to reuse the few set answers the child knows by asking, “What is your teacher’s name, since I forgot? Is her hair brown or blonde? Who is your best friend in class?” These questions get the child talking even if they only answer in single words; you still get more than “fine” out of them on the ride home.
2. Use singing and music to communicate
Singing is another way to initiate communication. Often children with autism can sing much better than they can speak. Even totally nonverbal children will hum or babble along with music. One of the first times my youngest used any sounds or words was in the car singing along with my Duran Duran, Adam Ant CDs along with other 1980s music. She even got in trouble one day at school for singing, “S, S, S, A, A, A, F, F, F,” a part of the song Safety Dance by Men Without Hats. It was hilarious because they made her leave the room but she kept knocking on the window of the door still saying the letters. The teachers had no clue what she was talking about until they called me, and I explained, then they both were quite amused as they both were from my generation, and, of course, knew the song. It was delightful to have to sign a behavior report over her talking, or in this case, singing too much in class.
If your child doesn’t respond to the radio or digital music recordings, try actual musical instruments. I found my youngest daughter would sing along better if she was playing a xylophone that she had wanted. She ended up having half a dozen xylophones of course, but they helped her speech progress greatly through elementary school.
3. Give one instruction at a time
One of the well-known tricks you may have heard of is giving one instruction at a time such as, “FIRST brush your teeth…and THEN use the bathroom…AND THEN go to bed.” Kids with autism often get confused and bogged down if you give them more than one instruction at a time, or they try to do all at once, and end up sitting on the toilet brushing their teeth at the same time. I found if I included the words first, second, and then, or such phrases that helped all three of my children follow directions better, they were able to be given more than one direction at a time.
4. Teach your child phrases and figures of speech to help communicate
I taught all my kids to say, “Do you get it?” after they told a joke. This was quite helpful for my family because all three kids would tell us “jokes” that weren’t very funny or even clearly supposed to be a joke. So they all learned to say, “Did you get it?” afterward, if whoever they were telling the joke to was just standing there with a lost expression on their face. Similarly, “just joking” and “Isn’t it funny that…” were also useful phrase tools for the kids to learn. Even the standard “who’s there” line to respond after being told “knock knock” helped them join in with that joke-telling ritual, and practice conversational answering and replying skills.
Kids with autism often struggle with figures of speech. If you say, “I have a frog in my throat,” they might well ask you to open your mouth so they can look inside and see the frog. Learning that there were such silly sentences in which the words didn’t mean exactly what they implied was a difficult lesson for my kids. All three of them finally learned it by asking or telling me upon hearing such that it was “Just a figure of speech, right?” It helped them be able to figure that out for themselves, or ask the person or someone else if what they didn’t understand was just a figure of speech or not. They even then would work such expressions into their own speech, which is a higher level of communication skills.
5. Don’t be too critical
My youngest daughter started to watch “tween” TV shows in middle school, even though she still liked the preschool age cartoons and educational shows she’d been watching for years. I took this as a big step forward in her development towards more age appropriate interests, and it did cause development in her speech. Suddenly, she learned to use the cheeky, pithy, even rude one-liner sitcom jokes in appropriate (speech and age) ways. When her brother would tell her she was annoying him, her reply was, “Tell it to judge.” Or when I asked her one day what she was doing online because she was laughing, she responded, “You don’t need to know.” She had gotten both these one-liners from TV shows about girls her age. This made us all laugh, as they were really a very typical teenage use of speech. This did make her sound more like a girl her age, which was good because it was so easy to treat a 14, 15, 16, or 17 year old autistic young adult as if he/she was still a five-year-old because his/her developmental age.
So don’t be surprised (or overly critical) if you are told, “Chill, Mom, don’t have a cow.” When you complain about his/her room being a mess or homework not being done, realize that not-so-nice reply is perfectly age appropriate. Even a nonverbal teen might roll his or her eyes at his or her mom lecturing about something, like they have seen on Sabrina the Teenage Witch or That’s So Raven. This is normal teenage angst, and in this case a great development in communication.
The goal is always to get children on the spectrum to talk more, be more clear and better understood in their words, and to learn to communicate effectively one way or another. It might be in spoken language, sign language, written language, or eye rolls, but it is all communication, which helps our kids live better lives, and those around them to be able to relate to them better.
Ginger Strivelli is the mother of six grown children, three of whom are autistic and two who work with The Girls Scouts and Autism Society of NC with people with autism like their siblings. She is an artist and writer who has had her work published in various fiction and nonfiction publications. Ginger now lives in Luxor, Egypt, with her youngest daughter and a barnyard full of therapy cats, sheep, cows, a donkey, and a camel. Ginger and her daughter spend the annual winter holidays back in Jupiter, NC, where she raised her children.
This article was featured in Issue 69 – The Gift of Calm This Season