Learning to talk to young children is an art that takes time to learn and requires thoughtful consideration of the child's perspective. For example, from the child's perspective, it is uncomfortable to be asked a question that he or she can't answer. But asking questions is what many adults do more and more frequently when a child has a language learning difficulty. It is hard habit to change, I have noticed as I have tried to guide parents away from asking unanswered questions and I have wondered why. Why do they keep asking questions when the child does not answer? Perhaps, it is because, as a culture, we tend to ask questions of babies and pets who can't, of course, answer.
Today, in the city rose garden, a women waited with a beautiful dog while her companion went in the restroom. Where's daddy? She crooned. Where'd he go? Where's daddy? Where is he? Where's daddy? Where's daddy? Where is daddy? and so on, the question fainter and fainter as I walked toward the flower beds but continuing until, I presume "daddy" came out again. I winced a bit because I had had a similarly fruitless question asking session with my cat, Shadow this morning. What do you want, Shadow? I asked. You have water and you have food. What do you want? I really hope that I did not ask the question as many times as the dog lady but I definitely asked my cat some questions that I knew would go unanswered. In my own defense, my question was real. I could not figure out why Shadow was following me around and meowing pitifully. Whereas, I firmly believe that the dog lady knew perfectly well where the dog's "dad" was.
When my oldest daughter had her first job babysitting a newborn baby, she came home discouraged because, she said I did not know what to say to a baby. I told her, You just say anything you want. You tell the baby that he is beautiful, that he has sweet little toes. You ask the baby if you can eat his sweet little toes. You ask silly questions and then you give silly answers to your questions and none of it needs to make any sense at all. Babies are just listening to the melody of what you say and soaking up all the love that you express with your voice, your face, and your touch.
But talking to young children is not the same as talking to our beloved pets or our precious babies. Young children are actively trying to understand what we say and trying to respond. They feel embarrassed and frustrated when conversation becomes too hard. We need to load the deck in their favor as they try to learn how to participate in conversation. Young children with ASD find conversation even more difficult and we really need to load the deck in their favor. We want the child to want to communicate and this will only happen if the child is successful.
Answering questions is the hardest part of early language learning. Imagine trying to learn Arabic or Hindi and everyone around you keeps asking you questions in this difficult language. You don't know how to answer the questions. But this does not seem to matter to anyone. They don't stop asking you questions, they ask more questions instead. This would be a nightmare. But this really happens to young children with language learning difficulty. Most adults seem to go into a kind of hyper-questioning mode of conversation when the child does not answer questions--even with nonverbal children who never answer a single question.
OK. Kids don't necessarily feel that all that question asking is a nightmare. For most children the behavior is just a little confusing and children cope by ignoring language that is hard to understand. But, if you really want to have a conversation with a child, many strategies work better than the strategy of asking the child a question that he or she can't answer.
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