National Autism Awareness Month: Helping Children With Autism Learn
April is National Autism Awareness Month and the OUPblog would like to raise awareness by sharing excerpts from two different, but equally useful books. Helping Children With Autism Learn: Treatment Approaches for Parents and Professionals, by Bryna Siegel, is a practical guide to treating the learning differences associated with Autism. Siegel, the Director of the Autism Clinic at Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, gives practical guidance for fashioning a unique program for each child’s problem, effectively empowering families. In the excerpt below Siegel explains how to help verbal children use their words. Be sure to check back later today for an excerpt from Stress and Coping in Autism.
If He Understands, Why Won’t He Answer?
Autistic children need a reason to answer. “Just because I asked” is usually not a good enough reason, as that would be a more purely social reason. The probability that a child with autism will answer, or appear to comprehend or comply increases as the “instrumental press” increases. This means if the child can see that there are clearly desirable consequences to answering, and he knows how to answer, he will respond. Just as is the case when using visually based communication, it is necessary to create a situation in which the child wants to answer, or wants to ask a question because in his mind, it will get him something he wants or wants to know.
Upping the Communicative “Press.”
When the child really wants something, it is a good opportunity to increase your communication demands just a bit. If the child has just seen you open a bag of Cheetos, and he said, “Cheetos” while approaching your bag with what looks like an intention to grab the bag, this is a good time to tighten your grip on the bag and say, “Kevin, do you want Cheetos?” If Kevin replies, “Cheetos!” prompt him by touching his chest lightly with your forefinger (I’m assuming Kevin is almost on top of you by now) and saying “I want Cheetos.” If he says, “I want Cheetos,” thank him for asking, and give him a few Cheetos. I prefer “Thank you for asking!” to “Good saying ‘I want Cheetos!’” since the latter is not a grammatical sentence and can only serve to confound any emerging sense of grammatical rules. Adult responses that result in the child’s possibly echoing grammatical formulations that are not correct fails to provide available opportunity to rehearse meaning.
Depending on how many Cheetos you have, and how much Kevin likes them, this could be a good time to practice related conversational gambits like “I want more Cheetos,” and “Mom, I want more Cheetos, please.” Take advantage of the tendency to echo by developing a way of prompting an echo like touching his chest, (or cheek or lips, or touching your own lips then pointing to the child’s mouth). The prompt should model appropriate speech with just a bit more elaboration of the statement the child has generated on his own.
A common error in prompting speech revisions, however, is to take the conversation lesson too far. If the adult starts to prompt the child to “say it better,” add “please” and use a proper noun to address the person with the Cheetos, and keeps withholding the Cheetos until all these additional demands are met, it is no longer a conversation or even a conversational lesson, but just too-hard a lesson. The child is likely to give up and just walk away. The chance to prove the idea that spontaneous requesting is useful is lost. The child will have learned nothing about rules of language pragmatics, which is that you clarify an utterance only until the listener understands. It is also a key teaching opportunity in these kinds of situations for the adult to add real, natural conversational responses, like the “Kevin, do you want Cheetos?” response to an initially nonverbal communicative initiative on the child’s part (trying to grab the bag). This exposes the child to natural language models at a time when his receptivity to what is being said will be high—because he wants something.