Communication and Autism

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I’m excited to be asked by Wendy to share some information and insight regarding communication and autism with you.

One of the main questions I get (as a speech language pathologist) from parents whose children have been diagnosed with autism or at-risk for autism (which usually means the child is having difficulty with social communication) is, how do I get him or her to talk? My response to that is “what do you think is most important – the talking or what she has to say, i.e. WHY she wants to talk?” Now, I have been known to tell my 7 year old, “don’t respond to my question with a question!” So, I understand how frustrating that can be, but we really need to think about the child and answer the question – What is most important for her social communication? Is it that we hear her say, “I want bubbles” or that she reaches up, pops the bubble, and turns to you with a smile that you can see in her eyes as she engages with you?

Now, figuring out what she wants might be very difficult and in that case, we have to be detectives. We have to use our eyes, ears, and brain and figure out “what does she want?”. Is it that she’s requesting a toy, rejecting that toy, or wants to share some information with you about that toy (Pop a bubble!)?

In order to figure it out, do we jump in there and give her lots of language to get going? Or do we put that detective hat on and watch, listen, and wait to understand what she’s telling you?

I run a Hanen program called More Than Words®. There are so many powerful strategies in the program, but the one that I’ll focus on in this blog is OWL.

To OWL, a parent is asked to Observe, Wait, and Listen to determine what his child is really interested in. We, as parents, have agendas. Many of them involve making it through the day – Getting dressed (WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES???), getting out the door, eating, toilet, etc. There are certain things that must be done. However, in those times that we allow ourselves some freedom and play with the kids, are we also allowing that they may be interested in something completely different than what we think they’re interested in? That is the question that OWL helps to answer.

Let’s look at an example: George is 3 and a half years old. He really enjoys playing with bouncy balls. How does Mom know that? Because she sees the smile on his face and hears his laugh. She also sees that he jumps up and down and tenses his body whenever the ball bounces off the floor and flies up in the air.

She now might have deduced that George is very excited and happy about his bouncy balls. She decides to play a ball game with him. Now is an even more important time to OWL.

O: OBSERVE. She watches his face and his body as she grabs the ball after a few bounces. He jumps up and down. What does she do now? Does she try to get him to catch and then throw the ball? Does she immediately give the ball back?

W: WAIT. (This part is HARD. So, cut yourself some slack if you jump in too soon! It might help to actually count in your head for 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds – whatever works for you.) She waits to see what he will do when she holds the ball up. He jumps up and down and reaches for the ball, looking at her.

L: LISTEN. She hears him shout “ball!” so she bounces the ball (just the way he did). At this point, she has watched him and waited and can now respond. She just as enthusiastically shouts “bounce the ball!”

We are always wanting to find ways in which to encourage our kids to use more words, and if not more, better words to help them express themselves. Our ultimate goal is to get our kids to be able to communicate in conversations; to contribute their ideas and opinions so that they can share their passions with others and others can appreciate them. Using this responsive technique, to OWL, helps us get there.

Happy Communicating!

Brigid Shamburg has worked as a speech-language pathologist for 13 years. She works at Excel Speech Therapy Center in San Marcos and has been running the Hanen More Than Words® program since 2010. Please feel free to contact her regarding interest in speech therapy or the More Than Words® program (Offered in central San Diego and San Marcos).
Brigid Shamburg