Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Time Traveling Language

Learning to communicate differently with a child who has autism takes effort and time. This post would be very long indeed if I tried to list here all the ways that you might need to change the way you communicate. But here is a short list of commonly important verbal strategies:

Most young children who have autism need adults to talk less, talk about what the child is currently experiencing or knows well, use short sentences, use mostly familiar words and phrases, teach the meaning of new words and word combinations, and demonstrate meaning quickly when the child shows any behaviors that indicate confusion. Young children with autism work very hard to communicate intentionally. Adults need to wait long enough before talking to see if the child has anything to say--some of my young friends can take up to six seconds to organize an idea and say it even when responding to a question that is understood and familiar. That is, one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five, one thousand six.

Let us contrast all this to the way most of us communicate:

We don't work at talking or listening or understanding language very often. We don't even think about it most the time. We understand what others are saying so quickly that we don't always need to wait for the whole sentence and many informal conversations are made up of partial sentences and a lot of mind reading. We easily talk about the past, the present, the future, the imaginary, the emotional, the spiritual, the mundane. And we mix and switch what we say in a dozen ways for two dozen subtle social reasons with automatic variations for each of our conversational partners-- all without planning what we will say and usually without reflection after we say it. Examples:

I am just a little shook-up, you'll have to excuse me, but I almost got hit by truck on the freeway! I am still shaking! (8:30 am when a co-worker says good-morning)

I am just going to enjoy this coffee because it has been brought to my attention that my life could end at any moment--this could be my last cup for all I know! Did I tell you that a truck nearly blew me away on the way to work today? (10:30 by the coffee pot in the break room)

Those stupid truck drivers think they own the road. They don't let those guys get enough sleep, that's the problem. I almost got hit by a truck driver this morning on the way to work! (12:30 pm in discussion over lunch)

I just thank the Lord that I made it through today. I could have met my Maker personally this morning when a truck nearly knocked me into the next world! (in the driveway to the Methodist Minister who lives next door)

Well, Honey! I gotta tell you about my day. It started off dramatically when I was driving to work and, you know that spot where Aunt Erma lost a tire? it was right there that a truck moved into my lane and would have hit me if I had not slammed on the break. (to husband as he comes in from work)

You just have to leave enough room between you and the other vehicles as you drive because you never know when another driver is going to move into your lane. (when in the passenger seat with a permit driving teenage daughter later that evening)

And so on with topics that are emotionally engaging, like nearly being hit by a truck, dominating our conversational language.

Most of us use so much abstract, complex, time and imagination liberated language that when we try to make our language more concrete, simple, and here-and-now---well, we just can't. It takes practice to tame our time traveling, socially sophisticated, wordy, emotionally laden, abstract, imaginative and highly variable language.

Remember, even if you work hard and learn a manner and style of speaking that is both simple enough and yet engaging enough for your child--your child will need to work still harder to learn how to communicate with you. You can do your share of the work to become a good communication partner, can't you?

No comments: