To communicate successfully children have to have a communication tool. We should introduce them to the systems of communication as soon as possible. The selection of a particular communication system should be based on the child’s inner language [https://integratedtreatmentservices.co.uk/blog/autism-speak-language/ ], his sensory-perceptual profile and the communicative means the child already uses to express different communicative functions.
For those who understand verbal language but have no speech, non-speech language systems (e.g., written language) may be introduced. Some of these children may learn to speak when they are taught to read. One of the advantages of written communication (handwritten or typed) is that it is indirect and that is why it can reduce information-processing overload. Making the connection between feelings and expression is easier through written than spoken language. (However, a warning should be made. Quite often the main strategy used to teach autistic children to write is to make them copy written words and texts. The activity becomes meaningless as in this case they copy not texts but meaningless patterns; it’s sort of ‘written echolalia’.)
For those who have no symbolic understanding of language yet, non-verbal communicative systems might be an option (the language of objects [https://integratedtreatmentservices.co.uk/blog/autism-olga-bogdashina/communication-via-objects/ ], PECS [https://integratedtreatmentservices.co.uk/blog/visual-systems-visual-thinkers/], are possibilities). Whatever language system is selected, it should be taught as a tool of communication and not as meaningless noises they are asked to produce. In some schools and provisions ‘communication sessions’ are conducted where children are taught to respond to questions ‘What is it?’ or ‘Show me…’ without having any understanding of the process of communication. To these children they are just meaningless drills that do not help develop either social or communication skills.
The language system to be taught should be matched to the child’s inner (internal) language in order to make it easier for her to ‘translate’ from external to internal ‘code’. If she stores (and operates by) ‘experiences’ and ‘feeling things’ (in other words, her inner language is sensory-based), first we have to find out which sensory module (visual, auditory, olfactory or combination of them) she uses to get the information in and create ‘words’ for later reference.
The child’s inner vocabulary can be visual/ auditory/ tactile/ olfactory/ gustatory images, or combinations of these. Whatever module the child uses, her language is concrete and literal.
Most autistic children seem to ‘speak’ either visual [https://integratedtreatmentservices.co.uk/blog/11996/ ] or auditory, or tactile or kinaesthetic [https://integratedtreatmentservices.co.uk/blog/sign-language-vs-mime-signing-kinaesthetic-speaking-children/] ‘language’.
Auditory language: Children remember objects and events by ‘sound pictures’. If the object is ‘silent’, they may tap it, recognising it by the sound it produces. Unsurprisingly, spoken words are often perceived as mere sounds/ noises. It is difficult to sense of feel a ball, for example, in the auditory frame ball. While such children don’t recognise something if given its (conventional) verbal name, they may identify it by the sound it produces, the smell or the feel on the hand.
For some children (those with severe sensory-perceptual problems and who are usually non-verbal) touch is often the most reliable sense. They often find it easier to recognise objects through ‘feel’. In this case a tactile system should be favoured.
Tactile language: Children ‘speaking’ tactile language recognize things by touching them, feeling textures and surfaces with their hands, their bare feet or their cheeks, or putting them in their mouth. Through touch they get the information about the size and form of things, but not about their function or purpose. They store the information for later reference and may find similar objects (for instance, a plastic cup and a glass cup) to be completely different ‘words’ in their vocabulary because they ‘feel’ different.
Children can be taught to read by giving them plastic or wooden language to feel. They can learn about many activities by feeling objects involved in these activities. To make their life more predictable, you may give them some objects to feel in advance to prepare them for future events; for example, a spoon or a plate before a meal, a towel before bath time, etc.
If you teach the child the names of some objects, give him these objects to feel (or smell, or tap to produce a sound). Use his language to translate the meaning of the word.
Even those with dominant visual or auditory systems often benefit from having tactile messages introduced during stressful or unfamiliar situations. Many parents intuitively use this method. While going for a trip they give their child something she likes (a toy, a piece of cloth). It gives the child the feeling of home, security and reliability.
It is important to find out what language the child speaks. If we use one system (e.g., PECS) for all children in the classroom, for some it might work, for others it might not. E.g., using pictures with an ‘auditory’ type of child won’t help. It does not mean that you should ‘speak’ several languages but it does mean that you should know the peculiarities of each child’s language in order to teach him a ‘foreign’ one. The aim is to teach them the language they can use to be understood everywhere and by everybody and not only in structured settings and by very few people. (Just as, if you have a few foreign children in your class who have just arrived from, say, Japan or Lithuania, and do not know a word in English, you try to adjust your verbal behaviour to their understanding and introduce English words and structures very gradually.)
In this case, demonstrating whatever we want children to learn in real situations will be much better than verbal descriptions. If a child relies on kinaesthetic images, re-enactments, movements, mime and role-play can make his interpretation of the descriptions much easier. These live demonstrations will save the child’s efforts to make sense of what we want him to learn, and allow him more time and energy for doing other tasks. To conduct our lesson properly we have to remove all necessary information (so as not to confuse the child) and introduce new ‘words’ and ‘phrases’ at the pace at which the child is able to cope. Gradually, more difficult concepts, such as past or future events, abstract concepts, etc. may be introduced by using external symbols (visual, auditory, olfactory – whatever the child’s inner language is) to make it easier for the child to create and hold the images together.
Research has confirmed that, following the development of a communication system, there is an increase in social awareness and a decrease in challenging behaviours.
While the child uses whichever communicative tool has been chosen, it may be useful for the adult to offer a commentary. Commenting on what the child is doing connects verbal expressions with the child’s inner experiences.
If the right system has been chosen, there is a hope that a child will learn to code (label) her experiences and thus will be able to develop verbal cognitive structures.
Written by Olga Bogdashina on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services