June 19, 2012

If you want them to communicate, give them a “voice”!

For many kids on the spectrum communication presents many challenges. Whether it is difficulty formulating what to say, how to say it, or feeling safe saying it, trying to communicate an idea, feeling, need, or experience can be challenging and frustrating. Identifying the right words and producing these words, in structural content so others understand them can be exhausting. Even for those who have verbal speech the anxiety of expressing themselves socially can be overwhelming.

In the early years, communication starts off very instrumentally. Children communicate that they want something, or “protest” that they don’t like something. This is the beginning of communication intent. For many children on the spectrum, this connection of communication cause, effect, and intent, can take longer to establish. Also, for these children, because much of the world is chaotic, confusing, and very scary for them, much of their first communication is to “escape and avoid” situations that overwhelm them. In the professional sector, this is called “protesting”. However, there first method of “protest” is usually behavioral (hollering, throwing things, hitting, kicking, biting self, etc.), rather than words. Because we often try to suppress such behavior, and ignore the child’s protesting, we invalidate the intent of their communication. We often ignore, or punish their communication intent, further frustrating their beginning attempts to communicate. Even as they get older, and establish spoken words, we often “do not listen” to them. Since we want them to do certain things, stop doing other things, and behave in certain ways, we often ignore or suppress their attempts to communicate their position. We want them to talk, and communicate, but often do not give them a “voice.”

Since we want the children to learn to communicate, we need to give them a voice! Whether it be through spoken words, gestures, manual signing, written words, vocal noises, pictures, or other behavioral actions, we need to allow the child to express what they want, don’t want, feel safe with, and feel comfortable doing. We need to give them a “voice” no matter how complex or refined the medium of communication happens to be. We have to establish (1) communication intent, and (2) safety and acceptance in expressing oneself, before the child will be motivated to learn more complex forms of communication. At a very early age, I recommend that we start doing the following:

1. From the earliest years listen to the child’s behavior, and assign communication intent to it. Whether the child turns and looks at something, picks something up, throws something, makes cooing vocal noises, or screams, assume intent to communicate, and assign meaning to it. For example, when Sally reaches for an object , assume intent to communicate, “Sally wants ____” and immediately give it to her. If Johnny pulls away and hollers when you present something, say “Johnny doesn’t like ____,” and withdraw it. Provide “intent” to any communication the child gives. In turn, verbally state this implied intent to the child, so they begin to connect that their actions have an effect on changing the behavior of others. At first the child may not be attempting to communicate. However, by assigning meaning and intent to it, the child learns the cause and effect connection from their actions having impact on their environment. This will establish both the meaning of “intent” as well as increase motivation to communicate.

2. Find the best method for your child to communicate. Although we all want our children to speak, speech may not be the first, and best method of communicating at this time. Use a “total communication” approach; using a variety of methods (vocal noises, gestures, pictures, etc.) to establish communication. Many parents worry that using augmentative methods of communicating will inhibit the use of speech. This is not true. Establishing communication in any form will increase the likelihood of speaking, if that modality is something they are capable of. All children first learn to communicate with vocal noises, gestures, facial expressions, etc., before learning to talk.

3. Give the child a “voice” in everything. Ask their opinion, or for what their preferences are. Give them simple choices (between what to eat, what to wear, what to do first, etc.). If they do not respond, take a guess and watch their reaction (“I bet Sally would like the juice!). Take whatever their response tends to be (reach, vocal noise, turning away, etc.) as communication, and reply back how you interpret it. Ask them their opinion, give them choices, pause a bit to give them a chance to respond. Once they respond, reply back how you interpret it. This will establish the connection to your response to their action.

4. Understand and respect their “protest.” If the child doesn’t like something, or something scares/overwhelms him, first acknowledge that you understand and validate that he is scared or doesn’t want something. This is important for the child to feel safe expressing their needs. If possible, withdraw the demand, modify it to meet his needs, or provide extra support to help the child through it. By (1) acknowledging and validating the protest, than (2) withdrawing, modifying, or providing greater support to the demand, the child is learning that their opinion is (1) important, (2) listened to, and (3) has a positive effect in assisting him/her.

5. In addition when your child is expressing emotion (happy, sad, angry, scared, etc.) label the feeling that your see, and connect it to what is causing it. “Johnny you look angry because you cannot have the toy!). This way the child begins to connect his emotion to the event, and realizes that you read his response as communication (which can help him deal with it). It connects the emotion to the event, and then his communication to your action.

6. Lastly, “nothing for the child, without the child!” Give them a voice in everything happening to them. Regardless of what that “voice” is, listen to it, acknowledge it, and respect it. This does not mean that you have to give in to all the child’s demands. Just make sure you (1) give him a chance to voice his opinion, (2) acknowledge and validate his feelings, and (3) try to modify, adapt, or provide greater assistance to make it better. When we listen, they will feel safe to express themselves, and develop better communication skills.

Once you have establish the above conditions, make sure to advocate the child’s right to a “voice” in all settings that he is engaged in (e.g. school). Advocate for your child to have a voice, and to use his voice!


No comments:

Post a Comment