Ways You Can Help a Child with Autism Find His or Her Voice
When we think of “finding one’s voice” we often think of a writer seeking the most natural and fluent way to express him or herself.
When it comes to autism, “finding one’s voice” is more literal: we are often literally teaching a child to speak who has never spoken before or teaching a child to find the words which are deep in his/her reservoir of knowing.
I want to describe a recent experience. James was a 10-year-old boy who could not explain things very well. He would get confused quickly then just give up. My evaluation of this child strongly suggested that he needed to organize his thoughts so that expressing what he wanted to would be easier. I thought I would teach James what I have taught many other clients—to do this internal processing on his own.
There was more. The evaluation revealed that his main problem was very low self-esteem. Having confidence in whom he was—feeling good about himself—was the most important thing.
In order for James to “have a voice,” he first had to understand himself. He literally had to understand himself. For example, James liked baseball and enjoyed playing on a team. At the same time, James did not think of himself as a person who liked baseball. After the season, he expressed no interest in playing baseball again! For a time, he was obsessively interested in skateboarding—for a time. One week later his interest in skateboarding was gone, as ephemeral and transient as his former preoccupation with baseball had been.
James could not complete the sentence “I am a boy who likes …” He had no “self” to identify with, to relate to, or to speak about. He had no sense of feeling sorry for misbehavior, no fear of authority—he only had what he wanted to do at the moment. If his skateboard got stuck while pulling it out from the car, he had no idea that he could turn it a certain way to retrieve it. Instead, he would get frustrated and scream. James had difficulty explaining anything because that meant he would have to stop and think.
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But what he really needed was a sense of self. He needed the ability to go into himself, to tap into a way of expressing himself so he could communicate exactly what he wanted to say.
And it did not have to be verbal!! This is spelled out in the subtitle of my book Uniquely Normal, which is Tapping the Reservoir of Normalcy to Treat Autism. This is specifically what James needed to do: to tap into his mental reservoir to communicate and really find his voice.
I decided to start with his latest obsession—making slime. (I had no choice!) Like most of us, I had no idea what making slime was about. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, welcome to the club! (Feel free to look it up.) Slime is a gooey clay-like substance made by hand.
After he wrote (very neatly, by the way) the ingredients he needed to make slime, James said we needed a plastic container to put it in. I asked him what kind, what size, etc. James had a meltdown, getting frustrated and angry, screaming that I knew what he meant and that he didn’t know how to explain it. I didn’t try to help him express himself.
I merely said that I needed to know the size of the container. James could show me with his hands; he could draw it; perhaps he could find it on the computer. James immediately calmed down and proceeded to meticulously draw the plastic container. Notice that I did not react to his frustration and tantrum—the problem was his difficulty expressing what he already knew. Once you react to the meltdown behavior, the child will react to your reaction, and the blow-up will continue and often escalate. All too often the end result is that people apologize, but nothing gets resolved.
Here’s the point. James needed to do one thing: to reach into himself, and by so doing, find a way to communicate with others. He had to find a way to negotiate the world. It’s there inside him, and he needs to learn to retrieve it successfully. Once he realizes by himself that he could express the type of container he wanted by drawing it (instead of being angry when he could not explain it in words), there would be no more frustration, and he would feel good about himself. He could also feel good about his ability to draw well. Likewise, he can learn to independently twist his skateboard in a way that would extricate it from the car.
First and foremost, finding one’s voice means finding one’s self. Once the frustration simmers down, and confidence starts to build, the child’s ability to use verbal explanations can now be encouraged more effectively.
This article was featured in Issue 87 – Building ASD Awareness and Communication