We often think of communication as spoken words and phrases, but there are so many ways in which we communicate daily. Think of the moment when your partner, a family member, or a friend remarks: ”You look tired,” after a full day of work and taking care of the kids. I am sure your body language might communicate a different message than the words you say…
We learn from a young age to take notice of the various ways people and animals communicate. When a dog growls, we become cautious. When a person shouts and raises his or her arms while we are crossing a road, we look for danger. We need to remind ourselves that our children also communicate in different ways, which include gestures and body language, and often, these are initially easier than verbal speech.
Contrary to popular belief, if you provide more than one way for your child to communicate, their verbal speech will also increase. Think of it this way: you are reducing the amount of pressure on one mode of communication, and offering more ways for your child to communicate effectively. If there is less pressure on your child, he/she may be more likely to engage and explore various modes of communication.
Five ways to increase functional communication
1. Visual choice boards
Creating visual choice boards is the most important strategy I have provided to any parent. We often think that visual strategies should only be used for our younger children, but this is very far from the truth.
Think of your daily routine and how much you rely on visual cues and prompts. You often look at your digital diary to plan your day, or you might enjoy articles with photos and graphics ensuring visual appeal. We fill our homes with visual art and sometimes find inspiration from books or beautiful scenery. These are all visual strategies we use; our children often require the same input.
A visual choice board can start with a simple poster that has velcro pieces attached to it and the words: “I want/need…” You can then take real photos of the items your child is most interested in (or motivated to obtain) and have these as options on the visual choice board.
Start with only a few and systematically increase the number of items. Later on, the idea is to create different visual choice boards for different categories and areas in your home: one for snacks (placed in the kitchen), one for outings (near the front door, perhaps), and another for sensory activities (close to your child’s sensory corner).
You can have fun with these and create interest-based posters together with your child. Progress from words on the visual choice boards to sentences written out. You might find that this is an excellent way to help your child increase their vocabulary, in a fun and functional way!
2. Respect the gesture
If your child chooses to communicate today with gestures—for example, pointing at what he chooses as a snack—respect it. Tomorrow he might choose to be a bit more verbal in his requests, but let him point or nod today.
A strategy that you can include with gestures is a follow-up verbal affirmation. When your child points at the juice he wants, you can state: “Juice”. Or: “Do you want apple or orange juice?” If you get into the habit of reinforcing your child for any and all communication he/she provides, your kiddo may increase not only the frequency but also the mode of communication.
Our children are usually bombarded with “manding practice” or expectations that are far greater than their typical peers. They do feel the added pressure, and as many autistic advocates have stated, we should also let our children know that we don’t want to change them, we are trying to support them in optimizing their strengths. Remember, not every moment should be seen as a “teachable moment”. Some moments are purely for bonding, interaction, and pleasure!
3. Pair it!
Once you’ve attained progress and increased the modes your child uses to communicate with you (this may include respecting his/her use of gestures and having visual choice boards readily available) you may want to encourage him/her to pair such communication with verbal sounds or words.
If your child finds a specific activity reinforcing, such as bouncing on the trampoline, you can join in the fun and pair the sound “b, b, b” with bouncing. The idea here is for your child to pair the verbal sound with the fun activity. Later, you can work towards chaining sounds together to become words (such as “b, b, bounce”) and then perhaps full sentences for more fluent verbal speakers.
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As adults, we also pair sounds, words, or phrases with activities; think of your favorite extramural activity and the verbal associations. Such as the sound of relief after having your first sip of a morning coffee: “Aah…” As parents, we often feel some of these strategies are only focused on our younger children, but we forget that we still utilize many of these in our daily lives, and we should do so with our children, of all ages and developmental levels.
4. Model it!
If you want your child to request more, you should model this behavior. We don’t want to expect anything from our children that we don’t engage in ourselves, right? If you want a certain snack, vocalize it, if you are enjoying an activity, state it. Modeling behavior is one of the easiest strategies to increase imitation.
Our children copy our movements and our mannerisms. If we engage in more communication throughout the day, they will copy and imitate this. It takes some practice, as we tend to think of our needs and wants more than actually stating it (verbally or otherwise), but if you want your child to communicate more, we should too!
An exercise I have found useful is to pick a day and really focus on stating my thoughts more vocally. I would let my partner know when I want to eat and what I feel like eating, what I want to do after work and what time I feel I should go to bed. The days where I focus on being more verbally communicative are also the days where we engage more in conversation and share our thoughts and feelings more fluently. It offers him the opportunity to also state his needs and wants more readily, as I am modeling a higher frequency of sharing.
5. Outings are fun
Recently, I had a discussion with Dr. Temple Grandin. I asked Dr. Grandin what advice she has for parents and she mentioned that a child should experience as much as they can in the real world from a young age. We should take our children to the beach, into the forest, on small walks in nature. The more they experience, the more we are helping them communicate.
It is always important to prepare your child for an upcoming transition or a new activity by including a visual schedule and doing some research about the outing beforehand. Such outings might not always be possible or feel successful, but you are slowly expanding your child’s interests and thus helping him/her increase his/her motivation to communicate about these new experiences to you and others in their lives.
There are many more strategies that could increase functional communication, but just like any new skill or concept, it is sometimes best to take it step by step. These strategies have proven to increase functional communication with the children we work with. It is important to note that strategies should be consistently implemented and always include interest-based activities that your child really enjoys.
This article was featured in Issue 127 – Nonverbal Communication
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