Will my Non-verbal autistic Child ever speak?
I can't tell you how many times I asked myself exactly that.
When my youngest son was 2 years old we realized that his language development was very delayed. His doctor wasn't worried, but we were.
For some time we knew that he was behind, but being that he was a twin, life had taken on a sort of whirlwind effect and it was hard to keep up (especially since his pediatrician wasn't offering up any resources.)
Nevertheless, I knew that by 2 he should be saying "mama" at very least. So we started on a year long journey which ultimately led us to an autism diagnosis.
During that time, we had specialists in and out of our home. We had hearing tests done and multiple evaluations at behavioral health facilities.
It seemed like everyone was asking a whole lot from us but was offering very little in return.
At the time, I had a degree in education and have since pursued a Master's in Special Education. But still, I felt at loss. What could I ACTUALLY do on a daily basis to help my son grow?
Every where I turned, I was basically given the impression that my son's "mild" autism would mean that we just had to go at his pace.
But can I tell you a secret? I wasn't okay with that. I wanted my son to develop language. And I didn't want to just sit around and wait.
Having a child who can't tell you what he wants and needs is REALLY HARD and someone who hasn't lived with that will never be as motivated as you are.
SOOOO... we found our own resources and made a plan.
And I'm proud to tell you that my (now) 6 year old son is EXTREMELY verbal. In fact, sometimes I miss those quiet moments before he could express himself properly.
A quick Lesson on Language
For centuries, scientists and researchers have debated whether the ability to use language is born in us.
Here is the basic idea: Once children begin learning words, they are able to string those words together into sentences in ways that they've never heard from their parents. (A child can say "I want my ball" even if he's never heard anyone else say "I want my ball.")
Because of that ability, it is believed that language is not something that children mimic but rather, it is something that we have an innate ability to understand and create. THIS ARTICLE by the New York times gives an interesting example.
My theory (which has definitely not been studied by Harvard) is that a child with autism, MY child with autism does not have the innate ability to produce language the way other children do.
Think about it for a moment. I'm sure you've heard of echolalia? Basically, this is when autistic children mimic things they've heard.
Children with more severe cases will mimic phrases that are completely out of context in a conversation.
But if you pay close attention, you'll notice that even when autistic children seem to be having a conversation, they are still repeating phrases they've heard rather than WORDS they've heard.
Often, an entire conversation will be mimicked. Psychologist call this "scripting." Basically, the child wants the conversation to follow the exact same script every time.
For us, when our son was four, he would call my name and if I used any word other than "what?" in response, he would continue to call for me until I responded "appropriately."
So if he said "Mommy?" and I said "hmm?" He would refuse to answer me but would continue calling my name.
That is in sharp contrast to the child in the article I mentioned above who had the ability to string together grammatically correct sentences despite the fact that he had NEVER seen it modeled.
Even now, at 6 years old and after hours of speech therapy, my son will still occasionally resort to repeating phrases he's heard rather than forming his own sentences
I'm convinced that this is because his memory works much more efficiently that his problem solving.. but I digress.
So how can you help your non-verbal child develop language?
There ARE some things you can do to help your child develop language.
Some of them will require you to be really present at home and others will help give you a break. All of them will help.
Start by getting help.
If you haven't yet sought out help, you should check to see what's available to you. The more eyes you have, the better.
We started at 2 working with speech therapists to help improve our son's language skills.
Early intervention services are free to children diagnosed with a delay or disability under the age of 3. If your child hasn't been diagnosed, they can also help with that. (They will not diagnose autism but can definitely diagnose a speech delay.) The program will evaluate your child and then put you in contact with therapists who can work with you and your child in order to reach goals.
You can find information about early intervention services at THIS LINK. *If your child is over age 3, your local early intervention office should be able to provide information on next steps.
EXTRA SPEECH THERAPY
We wanted to make sure that our son was receiving as much help as we could get. We heard about a free speech therapy program that was offered by graduate students at a local university.
This program was a God-send. Unlike the speech therapy offered by the state services, this program allowed us to focus on our child's speech PATTERNS as well as the actual word development. I really think that this played a MAJOR role in his language development.
That's why I sincerely suggest looking into speech therapy outside of what is offered by the state. If you can't find a program with a local university, check out this page for outpatient providers near you.
Try reverse Mimicking
I'll never forget the day I heard my son say "mama" for the first time. We were in our living room with a therapist and he was entertaining himself on the floor by stacking some blocks.
While he stacked, he babbled. "Ga, Ga, Ga..."
The therapist repeated him "Ga, Ga, Ga...."
He paused for a moment. Then returned to stacking and babbling, "Boo, boo, boo..."
The therapist repeated him again. "Boo, boo, boo."
He side-eyed her with a little smirk on his face. "bum, bum, bum."
She repeated.. "bum, bum, bum."
They were communicating and he liked it, "do, do, do."
She repeated, "do, do, do." then she paused for just a moment and continued with "ma ma"
HE REPEATED, "MA MA."
And........ I lost it. Literally, I cried like a baby.
He didn't know he was calling my name. He didn't understand that "mama" had a meaning yet. But at nearly 3 years old, he finally said mama and my heart jumped in my chest.
We used this reverse mimicking technique a lot in the beginning. It brought the two of us into the same world. We were communicating even though the "words" were nonsense.
Reverse mimicking provides a gateway for your child. It makes him aware that communication CAN be verbal.
Narrate your whole life
We all have something called "relational memory" this means that when we can relate a word to other knowledge that we have, the word becomes an "enriched" word in our vocabulary.
For example, if I mention Paris you may have a picture in your head that you've seen on a movie, or you may have visited Paris an have a more intimate knowledge. Either way, the word has some level of meaning to you.
But if I say the word "Pedagogy" you may have no way of relating that word to real world knowledge.
Children (even neurotypical ones) are all building their relational memory. But a child with autism may need you to be more direct in the way you help with this.
All day long, you should be literally narrating your actions like the deaf accessibility feature on your TV. While you wash the dishes, say "I am washing the dishes. My hands are all wet. Your hands are dry."
Remember to bring your child into your narrations as much as possible.
For example, when your child is playing blocks, sit down beside him and say. "I would like to play blocks too. I think I'll play next to you. I'm going to stack my blocks to make a tower."
Model sentences instead of questions
Remember how I said that my child would memorize who conversations?
Whenever we are working with children with autism, you've got to keep that in mind!
When your child starts crying and pointing at the cereal box, instead of asking him "do you want cereal?" say "Mom, I want cereal please." and then proceed to give your child the cereal.
Because your child is memorizing your sentences, you need to give him the exact words that you want him to say.
This is a progressive approach that will change with time. After you start seeing some progress, you may want to start asking him to repeat your words.
After he masters that without prompting, you can move on to using a question and answer technique.
But remember, language learning is a process and requires complex skills that we tend to take for granted. Don't expect too much right out of the gate.
READ to your child as much as possible
If your child will sit with you and allow you to read a book, this is a great way to develop relational memory as well as conversational skills.
Remember to start with simple books that have only one to two lines of text on each page. Stop occasionally to point out things in the pictures.
Ponder your thoughts about the book aloud by saying things like, "Oh, I bet he is angry" or "I wonder if he will have to clean up his mess."
You may even try journaling with your child and narrating your thoughts and feelings as you go.
Steer clear of TV shows that don't teach language.
Although stories and TV can actually build relational memory, a lot of TV shows made for young children feature only characters and sounds with no dialogue. In fact, this was been true since I was a child.. (think Tom and Jerry).
But shows like that are doing NOTHING for your child's language development.
However, let's be honest, parenting is hard and sometimes, TV gives us the break we need to keep going for the rest of the day.
That being said, I've included a few shows that do a great job of helping to build your child's language!
TV SHOWS FOR LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
This is my top choice for language development. The story line is set up with a narrator in the background making it very similar to a book. If you don't have cable TV, you can stream caillou for free with the PBS kids App on a smart TV or ROKU device.
2. Blue’s Clues
In blues clues, the main character in the story talks to the child directly as though they were having a conversation. It great for modeling conversational language. You can find blues clues on amazon prime using a smart TV or a ROKU device.
3. Word Party
Word party is a cute little show available on Netflix, it features animal babies who are trying to learn new words! This show will help your child fill up their vocabulary with new words.
4. Daniel Tiger
I will never forget the day my daughter looked up at me and said "Mommy, I'm frustrated!" Daniel Tiger, an animated spin-off of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, not only converses with your child to help them learn typical language skills but also challenges your child’s language development with some advanced vocabulary all while giving lessons in morality! Daniel tiger is also available on the free PBS kids app with your Smart TV or Roku device.
5. Mr Tumble
I just couldn’t leave this out. Perhaps one of the best shows for language development is Mr. Tumble! Available for FREE on YouTube, Mr. Tumble uses direct conversations, indirect conversations (between characters), and sign language to teach your child language development!
This is by no means an exhaustive list, I'm sure there are HUNDREDS of shows out there for your child's language development. So go ahead, mom. Give yourself a few minutes of quiet time. But make sure you choose shows that are working for you instead of against you!
Above all else, know your child
You know your child best of all. Be present in their daily life and recognize when they've mastered a specific language skill. Adjust your goals and keep pressing on. That is the key to helping your child's language develop!