Bridging the Communication Gap with Your Autistic Child
Language and communication deficits are usually the most serious and stressful aspects of autism. Communicating successfully is a major challenge many people with autism face. Their ability to communicate dramatically affects how well they interact socially in a non-autistic world. Many people with autism lack the skill to even request a glass of water or to ask that the volume of a television set be turned down. Without the ability to communicate effectively, life becomes an exercise in frustration, tension, and anxiety.
Because most persons with autism tend to have strong visual skills, a number of tools have been developed to help with communication and social interaction.
Developing sign language as a communication bridge
For children on the autism spectrum with significantly delayed verbal skills, early introduction of sign language training can be important in developing functional communication skills. The development of signing skills can also, in some cases, be an effective bridge toward developing verbal skills. In low-functioning children, sign language can be the foundation of functional communication.
One common myth is that teaching sign language to a child with autism or encouraging the use of pictures will delay development in expressive verbal communication. However, many leading experts believe that introducing these modes of communication will, in fact, speed up the speech development for the children. At the very least, if a child can never gain verbal fluency, he or she will have some form of functional communication.
To determine the appropriateness of introducing sign language at an early age, consult with a speech and language therapist who’s acquainted with training children on the spectrum.
Working toward functional communication
Autistic individuals can excel at data collection — gathering facts and figures like little computers. However, in an educational program, you want to include life-skill building that goes beyond data collection. The child should be able to use the data that he collects, and the life skills you build should be meaningful and have purpose in the real world. In other words, you want to practice functional communication. For example, a child should be able to do math, of course, but he also needs to apply the math he’s learning to the world so that he knows how to use math to make a payment when shopping in a store, for instance. Often, even children on the lowest end of the autism spectrum have the potential to develop basic communication skills that allow them to communicate their most basic needs to others.
A mistake parents make too often with programmed instruction is to focus on academic gains; they miss out on meaningful, functional communication. This results in children who can shoot through all the exercises in their programs with flying colors but can’t ask for something to eat.
Children who are allowed to play video games for hours or watch television endlessly will disengage from the real world because their brains don’t get enough stimulation. This troublesome fact is true for neurotypical children and doubly true for autistic children. So, you should pack your child’s day full of meaningful interactions that keep his mind engaged with the world, not tuning out for long periods.
Here are some ways you can promote engagement and connection (in other words, functional communication):
Turn off the TV after one video or program, and limit video games to one hour a day.
Talk to your child often, even if he or she doesn’t seem to respond. Many people with autism have delayed sensory processing, meaning they may not respond immediately or even be able to respond, but they can understand what’s happening. Like anyone else, autistic individuals don’t like being ignored.
Encourage areas of talent, like drawing or computer programming. A common mistake is to focus on weaknesses to the exclusion of strengths.
Try to channel your child’s passions or fixations, such as a love for trains or collecting, into something constructive. In the best situations, an interest in maps can lead to a vocation as a travel writer, or a love of animals can become a career in a veterinarian's office.
Using assistive communication technology
Assistive technology is any device used to increase, maintain, or otherwise improve the capabilities of a person — whether the person has autism or not. Experts have created assistive technologies such as interactive language boards, visual schedules, and computerized communication systems to help people with autism — particularly those undergoing speech therapy — to communicate more readily while they work on improving their speech capabilities.
Most people use assistive technology; you just don’t usually call the tools by that name. Day planners, PDAs, tablets, and shopping lists are the primarily text and graphically-based equivalents of visual schedules that can be used to expand an individual’s ability to plan and communicate. (People on the autism spectrum and otherwise who have difficulty processing text are usually helped by graphically based visual schedules using low, medium, or high technology to help remember routines, expected behaviors, and to organize their lives.) E-mail, text messages, and instant messengers are computerized communication systems. Restaurant menus are interactive language boards.