Some children who are Autistic are verbal and others never become speakers. This is one of the harder parts of being a parent raising a child on the spectrum. As parents, we need to be able to communicate to our child as we raise them so being told during a diagnosis that your child may never be able to talk is just plain hard. I know now that thanks to technology there are many ways to augment communication but when you are looking into the eyes of a toddler or preschooler who you are still teaching many other things it all seems daunting.
Especially hard is being at the playground and watching as other children try to initiate play with your child and your child cannot say anything at all. Confused children shrug their shoulders and walk away. Another social learning opportunity is lost so I begin to think no wonder social challenges are a big thing with many Autistics if they were not given the equal chance of learning how to navigate the social sphere as their peers did.
I would be sitting at ASD parent-training seminars and listen to other parents talking about challenges they were having navigating the school system with their ASD children in kindergarten and speech wasn’t one of their issues. I was so worried then because if my son had to deal with some of the stuff those children were dealing with and couldn’t even talk how would he be able to handle the demands of school? I remember feeling a sense of panic quietly simmering inside of me as I listened to story after story. What did these well-meaning parents tell me? “Don’t worry. He will talk. The words can be slow to come when it comes to Autism.” The words did come but it felt like it happened very slowly and only when we were able to find the right therapists and advocate for more understanding and intervention at school. Right now, one of Johnny’s classmates who is 7-/12 and Autistic too is beginning to make sounds and word approximations and was using an iPad to speak. You just never know but the waiting and not knowing is very hard indeed.
Since its Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to share a post from from December 20, 2011 where I relate what we did as parents to try and help Johnny find his way back to the speaking world. We had no idea if it would work. All we knew is that we HAD to at least try. It is one year after getting Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis and Johnny is 4 and essentially still considered non-verbal but is a beginner communicator who needs PECs to support his communication.
One year ago today Johnny began using words again when he requested what he wanted. At around 16 to 18 months Johnny lost any language he had learned and only used grunts and pointing to communicate. Imagine hearing your child say “Mama” “Da Da” at the typical times of development and one day it just stops.
We wanted him to start using his words again but how do you motivate him? We had learned some sign language to teach him so he could communicate “more” or “done” but sometimes he didn’t want to even do that. In speech therapy you learn how to model words, label things, get eye contact with your child, create learning moments, learn play skills to increase communication etc. After 6 months we felt like we were not moving forward enough. Johnny understood what we were saying, he followed directions and could point to things in books when we asked him so he was showing he had good receptive language skills. We decided that in order for him to get something he needed we had to get him to start really “trying” to say the word even if it meant making a vowel sound. We would give him 3 tries and then model what we wanted him to say. We would also start acting like we didn’t understand at first so he would have to try and make us understand. Would he get frustrated? Yes but what better currency then wanting that cup of juice or that banana. Every single moment of every day became a teaching moment. We decided that if he liked repetition then we would use it to teach him to talk.
I remember I asked him to say “Ma Ma” and then point at what he wanted so that I not only heard the words I craved to hear but to start teaching him how to get someone’s specific attention and reap the benefits. It took lots of repetition and modelling but then suddenly he said “Ma Ma”. I was so overjoyed and flabbergasted all at once that I kept kissing his face. Did he say what I thought I heard? He would give me a big smile and say “Ma Ma” over and over again and I would smother his little face with kisses until her started giggling. That’s Johnny’s beloved voice that I haven’t heard in well over a year! I started to cry with happiness which really got him to say “Ma Ma” and put his hands on my face and look deeply into my eyes. This alone is massive because eye contact and touch is everything when you are reaching a child on the spectrum and trying to reach them and bring them back. Once Johnny realized how happy he was making Mommy he kept saying “Ma Ma” over and over again and basking in the joy he was giving me. We had found a new game to play with each other. I think we found his motivation to make Mommy smile and get kisses.
A year later Johnny now says with prompting “Da Da. I want orange juice. I want bar. ”