Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I love to help a child find words that he or she really wants to say. Sometimes--well often, I create situations where a child really wants to say something.

One little guy who was nearly nonverbal a few months ago loves lights so much. I would turn the lights off with one set of light switches and he would start to wail. I would say Daddy help! Light on! and he would stop crying long enough to say Light on! and run to the other set of light switches where daddy stood, and hold his arms up frantically. After all the lights were back on, he would walk away, fussing a bit and watching me warily in case I turned the light off again from the other set of switches. This was not his favorite activity but he was highly motivated to get the lights all on and would say the words necessary to make this happen. If I moved anywhere near the light switches, he would run to grab my hands and pull me back. If I asked him first Can I turn light off? he would reply NoKay which is the opposite of OK. We have been discussing lights and arguing about lights for many sessions. Yesterday, he gazed out the window in our clinic as street lights began to turn on and said light on. I replied Yes. Light on outside. We sat together on a step, playing with a balloon and every once in a while he would comment again about the lights on outside. We went back to the window to gaze at them again several more times before the session was over. He went home and told mom, Light on outside!

I think of it as a sales job, when I set out to demonstrate to a child why he or she should say words. If a child cares about something deeply, this is the topic to talk about, one way or another. If a child hates my ugly bug puppet, I pull it our regularly so the child can protest and then I can yell Go Away Bug! and throw it out the door. It is not long before the bug hater, if he can possibly do so, will be yelling Go Away Bug! And often yelling this with glee. I have had children request the bug that at first was genuinely frightening, just so he or she could yell at it. This is an easy sale because the child is already sold on the idea of the bug being banished, I just need to sell the idea of using words to do it.

I think that often we are not observant enough to figure out what would actually be an interesting set of words for a child with autism. We want the child to say things that are not interesting at all like to say the names of farm animals and colors. How may conversations about farm animals or colors have you had recently? We also want a child to say please, say hello, or answer questions like Why are you so upset? (which, I'd like to point out, grown men find hard to answer).

Talk about what a child cares about. If, for example, a child likes pencils and pens then discuss these. I once had quite a large collection of writing instruments that had names (light pen, bunny pen, Santa Pen, tiny pencil, tall pencil, wiggle pen, spinner pen, and so on.) I used these every session for weeks with a child who loved, as it turned out, all tall skinny things--even brooms and magic wands. I took pictures of every pen and pencil and we discussed each one, one by one, gazing at the picture as we talked, until the entire missing collection was found and collected again. Oh No! Skinny Pen is All Gone! Yikes! Skinny Pen where are you? Mom, where is Skinny Pen?

It is OK to use emotions to motivate language development. We all talk about what we are scared of, angry about, longing for, worried about, annoyed about, disappointed in, passionate about, in love with, fascinated by, curious about, revolted by, disgusted with and so on, and so on. If you are going to be putting words into a child's mouth, put the words in that the child really wants to say. A boring vocabulary lesson is NoKay.

Note: The emotion pens shown above are from here.

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