Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Disposition to Communicate

Communication is not simply a set of speech and language skills, it is a complex social behavior that occurs or does not occur based on a number of factors. I have been thinking about this lately and trying to sort out the important factors that keep me communicating with others or get in the way of communication.  Extrapolating from my experience, I am thinking also about what keeps children with autism communicating or not.

It is clearly not enough to have the skills of communication--we also need the disposition to communicate.  Can I say hello to my neighbor?  I have the skill but I might not always use the skill.  If my neighbor is friendly and talkative and I enjoy talking to the man, then I greet him when he and I both walk out of our door at the same time in the morning.  If he is not friendly or does not say much that is enjoyable for me to hear, or is downright unpleasant in some way, or if I am late to work or preoccupied with something pressing, I might actively avoid greeting him.  If, everyday, my neighbor and I have acquired the habit of just saying hello, and then waving--then this routine will hold despite a lack of time, real social interest in one another, or any other factors that might increase or decrease my desire to communicate with my neighbor.  Little communication routines keep social connections alive if not vibrant.  If I really, really enjoy talking to my neighbor, and it is clear he enjoys talking to me too, then I might start to gather topics of conversation throughout my day that would interest him in our regular morning conversation.  If he likes politics then I might scan the headlines in the paper over breakfast for political news and during the day, I will remember political comments that I hear at work to repeat to him the next morning.  I might do this even if I don't particularly like the topic of politics because the social relationship is what is really motivating me. It is useful to think of all these factors and how they influence how much and to whom we speak.

I got thinking about this because recently I have lost my disposition to blog. Daily blogging is not so different than having a daily conversation with a friend or neighbor.  I write blog posts with parents and other professionals in mind because these are the real people that I talk to all day.  My other conversational partners are the children that I see each week.  With my blog posts,  I rehearse and clarify the topics that I want to cover in real conversations.  I think about how and why communication and social interactions work or do not work by posting on these topics.  Sometimes, I use a blog post to say things that cannot be said to the real people that I talk to because it would not be wise or tactful yet I want to say these things.  I guess you could say that blogging is a form of talking with one's self but it improves my communication with others in my workplace.  As a bonus, I have actual readers of the blog (or at least I used to have when I used to write.)  So, why did I lose my disposition to engage in this form of communication?  Because my mind was largely occupied with other things than work in the last weeks and months.

My disposition to think about and communicate about autism has been superseded by my disposition to think about and communicate about weddings.  First my youngest daughter got married at the end of July and no sooner was that accomplished than my older daughter announced her engagement.  My mind seems to be preoccupied with things like guest lists, wedding dresses, flower choices, and reception menus.  You, dear readers, if there are any of you left, should be grateful that I spared you all of that.  But I have been and am enjoying it hugely.  Just one bit that I will share about the upcoming wedding--the next wedding will be in The Netherlands!  I just got back from a two week vacation there where we did some seriously focused wedding planning and some seriously fun recreating too.  I am a little more distant from the planning of this wedding, though, so perhaps I will recover my disposition to write blog posts.  Actually, I am certain that my disposition to write blog posts will return sooner or later.  Meanwhile, for any reader who is focused on teaching a child with autism to communicate, let these be the take home messages from this post:

1.  Spend as much time developing your child's disposition to communicate as you spend teaching your child new communication skills.
  • This means making sure that there are interesting, responsive, frequently available communication partners for your child--including you, of course.  Try to see communication situations from your child's point of view in order to become a more interesting communication partner.
  • This also means making sure that people are not doing things that would make your child actively avoid communication-including you doing these things, of course.  See all communication situations from your child's point of view and you may see why your child actively avoids becoming engaged at times.
2.  Parents often say "My child communicates when he/she wants to." with the implication being that the child inexplicably does not want to communicate very often.   There is always a reason why someone is not communicating.  What is your child preoccupied with that gets in the way of social communication?  The wedding season will soon be over at my house but you may want to look at some of the socially isolating things that preoccupy your child and decide if these are temporary interference or if these things will permanently interfere with your child developing a disposition to communicate.

3.  Little routines of communication, which don't take a lot of time or mental effort, can keep a child connected socially even when things like exhaustion from starting a new school year, preoccupation with anxiety about something new, or a new passionate interest seem to be getting in the way of more active communication.

4.  The complex system that keeps us communicating or inhibits us can be altered intentionally.  You can alter the social world around your child and increase his or her disposition to communicate. 


TJ said...

Hah, I think blogging enthusiasm cycles naturally, and it's good to take a break now and then! Hope everything goes well with the next wedding! How exciting!

Tahirih said...

That is certainly true. Actually, last year in the summer, I found it hard to write a post as well. I blamed it on the garden last year.

Deb said...

Still reading! Great post. It's interesting to think of HOW to motivate my son to communicate (he'll be 3 in November). Initiative seems to be an issue often with kids on the spectrum. We do find it helps to talk about things that interest him (Storm drains! Shadows!). This works really well but we have to be careful or he becomes even more fixated on these things that are, in their own right, not so harmful, but are still objects and not people. We want to respect his interests but try to draw him out as's a balance, many times.

Sue said...

Welcome back.
I have been checking in every day to see if you had written anything.
Life gets busy.
You will notice I am not blogging as much at the moment either.
I'm busy setting up community of practice Ning networks for our region. I'm about to link your latest post to that network now.
What you have to share is always worth waiting for.