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    Always Presume Competence (Part 1)

    Topics: Autism and Language, Autism & Emotions, Parents

    Teaching Language and Communication to Autistic Children

    Teaching language and communication to autistic children who are non-verbal, can be extremely challenging. When it appears that all our efforts to teach them to speak are in vain and no progress is noted, we can be tempted to think that there’s no hope of improvement and that a child may stay at that level of communication for the rest of their lives. I have learned, however, that no matter what the challenge, we should always presume competence, because that child may just surprise us. 

    Close to a child’s first birthday, there’s usually that special moment when a baby says its first words. But what if that moment of vocal communication doesn’t come until much later, or not at all, and makes you wonder, “Why doesn’t my child speak?” 

    This is the question I asked my grandson’s pediatrician when I took him for his one-year checkup. At first, he dismissed it and said he was probably a little slow, but at later consults, he confirmed there was a developmental delay. I learned that many conditions can affect a child’s speech. Some common causes are:

    It is important to get your child evaluated when you notice a speech delay or suspect a disability. All children develop in their unique way, of course, and some are a little slower than others, but if there is a disability at play, the sooner this is known the better so early intervention can take place, which can improve the prognosis. 

    In my grandson’s case, once I learned there was a developmental delay, I started using flashcards to teach him language. He did not repeat the words at first, but I soon found out that he was learning the words regardless. The cards had a picture with the word on the front, and just the word printed on the back of the card. After introducing several words to him, I would flip the cards over picture down, and ask him to point or give me the card with the word I said. Without fail, he would identify the correct card and word. 

    nonverbal child sign language

    Stages has a great assortment of flashcards. You can find a free Language Builder Emotions Cards download!

    Even though he learned to recognize and learn those words, my grandson remained minimally vocal until he was 3 years old, after which he slowly but surely started talking. And once he did, his vocabulary was incredible and included every one of the words he’d learned with those flashcards and many more. I was amazed at all he’d picked up from me simply talking to him about his surroundings as we shopped, drove in the car, took walks in the park, and more. He even spontaneously said the name of our bank as we drove past it one day.

    This experience convinced me that through perseverance and consistent exposure to language, many non- or minimally verbal children can learn how to communicate more clearly. 


    Devin’s Story

    Devin was 6 years old when I began teaching him at an after-school program for autistic children where I worked for several years. Devin was minimally vocal, and besides the autism diagnosis, his parents suspected Devin had dyspraxia. 

    nonverbal child communicating with mother

    At first, Devin would not pay any attention to me. When I tried to direct him, he would slide off his chair onto the floor and start stimming. If he was not stimming, he was salivating and slurping onto one of his prized Matchbox cars. When I tried to redirect him, he ignored me. Trying to get him to cooperate had been nearly impossible, I was told. 

    I knew the first thing I needed to do was somehow connect with Devin. I asked his mom about his likes and interests, and she told me one thing he enjoyed was watching and listening to songs about numbers. I found some cute video clips of number songs on YouTube and one day, without looking at him, I started playing one of them. It only took a minute to get his attention! He tried to grab the phone from me, but I calmly told him he could listen to it if he would come and sit on his chair. And that he did!

    I used number songs as an incentive or reinforcer from that moment on. Devin was soon staying in his seat to learn, and walked to the bathroom while listening to a song instead of having to be escorted there, and eventually was toilet trained using the same incentive. Once I made that connection and found what would motivate him, his progress was phenomenal in every way.

    Even though Devin did not talk, I soon learned from teaching him his ABA-based lessons that he was extremely intelligent. In the months that followed, Devin learned to read and communicate using a Visual Communication System and he made tremendous progress in every area.  It was then that I wrote in his journal that I believed Devin could acquire some verbal skills also, even though up to that point he only vocalized certain sounds and had not been able to use words to communicate. 

    Building on the sounds he already made, I started pointing out to him that the humming sound he made with his fingers in his ears to block out external noise was the same as the letter “m” at the beginning of words like “more” and “mom.” After practicing the “m” sound with him for quite some time, he connected the dots and suddenly mastered it.  He started to copy the “m” sound when prompted, first with his fingers in his ears, and then without.

    Shortly after this, pointing to the word “Mom” that I had printed out in big bold letters below a picture of his mom, he sounded out m-o-m for the first time. After practicing more and encouraging him to say it real fast, he finally said “Mom!” You should have seen the look and big grin on his face—and the tears in my eyes!

    boy with autism communicating with womanAround the same time, he also started imitating the “h” sound, so putting the two together, we worked on saying, “Hi Mom!” He worked so hard and was so excited that he could do it!

    Sometime later, when Mom came to pick him up, I asked her to sit down in the lobby for a moment as her son wanted to tell her something. She looked at me puzzled but sat down. When I prompted him to say, “Hi Mom,” he did wonderfully! Mom laughed and cried at the same time and hugged him tight—and he grinned from ear to ear! There was not a dry eye in the room as staff and other parents witnessed this special moment. 

    Teaching language and the art of communicating to a child on the autism spectrum can be challenging and take a long time, especially when the child is non- or minimally vocal. However, always presume competence and don’t give up. Every bit of progress, like Devin’s “Hi, Mom!”, is well worth the effort.


    For tips on teaching language and communication, continue to Part 2

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Written by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan is an author, public speaker, and Certified Autism Resource Specialist from the Netherlands. After working abroad as a teacher and humanitarian for 25 years, she moved to the US in 2006 and assumed the care of her then 6-month-old grandson, Logan. There were signs of autism at an early age, and the diagnosis became official in 2009. She has been his advocate and passionate about promoting autism awareness and acceptance ever since. Logan is the inspiration behind the Autism Is...? (tinyurl.com/5aj73ydd) series of children’s books she initially wrote for him and later published. Ymkje currently lives in California with her now 15-year-old grandson, and besides writing, presents autism training workshops for early childhood educators, parents, and caregivers. You can read more about her story in her newly released book, Autism on a Shoestring Budget, [Early] Intervention Made Easier (https://tinyurl.com/ysxhxbmf). For more information, you can visit www.autism-is.com, www.facebook.com/AutismIs, and/or contact her at autismisbooks@gmail.com.