In my last blog post, I talked about four ways to look at communication, including 1.) Verbal and 2.) Nonverbal, and two popular forms of nonverbal communication, 3.) Signing and 4.) PECS and other forms of Augmentative Assistive Communication (AAC) technology.
Today, going back to the four-leaf clover analogy, I want to talk about another way to look at four leaves of our clover of communication, or four different aspects of communication:
We’ll actually look at two methods of communication, oral communication and written communication, with each of them broken down further by looking at the receptive form (bringing in information from a communicative partner) and the expressive form (communicating information to someone else.)
When we speak, we are using oral communication to expressively share our ideas, thoughts or needs with someone else.
When we listen, we are receptively taking in someone else’s ideas, thoughts or needs that they express to us, also using oral communication.
When we read, we are receptively taking in someone else’s thoughts or ideas through written communication.
When we write we are expressively sharing our thoughts, ideas or needs with others, also using written communication.
The chart below illustrates this:
All four of these areas, (or leaves on the shamrock,) Talking, Writing, Listening and Reading, are included in the Common Core State Standards and should be represented in your child’s curriculum and IEP goals.
Let’s look at how our students on the autism spectrum might have unique challenges in each of these areas.
We already covered this pretty well in my previous blog, Four Ways to Look at Communication, under Verbal Behavior, but let’s look at how this plays out at school.
In classrooms, students may be expected to ask and answer questions, participate in back-and-forth discussions that include turn-taking, and presenting information verbally to the rest of the class, such as “Show and Tell” for younger children or presenting a book report or science fair project for older students.
If your child is struggling with speaking, they might need a referral to the Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) if they don’t already receive speech and language services. Consult with your child’s case manager and SLP. If the difficulty speaking comes and goes, it may be tied to anxiety. When stress increases, the ability to speak often decreases, and sometimes dramatically. If you see this in your child, make sure the teachers know not to put on added pressure, such as asking multiple questions. The child may still be trying to process the first question, and if you rephrase it (in an effort to be helpful or clearer) they may go back to step 1 and start processing the “new” question while trying to hold onto the original question. The more we try to clarify, the harder it becomes for them to understand anything, and they may shut down altogether.
- Reduce verbal input – talk less…
- Increase visual input – write a note or draw a picture of what you want
- Give time to process, stress-free, without adding pressure
The opposite of talking is listening. It’s important for our students to listen to the teacher, to listen to other school staff members, and to listen and follow group discussions and casual conversations.
Teachers should be aware, however, that students may be listening intently even if they are looking down rather than making eye contact, and doodling on paper or fiddling with a fidget. They may have to choose between looking and listening, and may not be capable of really listening and understanding what someone is saying to them if they also have to look at the person. Be aware if this is true for your child, and make sure their IEP team knows and accepts that he might not always make eye contact, but that does not mean he is not listening
Some students need to be in motion, engaged in self-stimulatory behaviors (“stimming”) in order to block out distractors and focus on the speaker. As long as they are not hurting anyone or interfering with the lesson, allow it. Teach their typically-developing classmates tolerance of learning differences.
- Accept lack of eye contact…looking ≠ listening
- Allow some movement…doodling, fidgeting, “stimming” with hands or fingers
Reading can be a much better form of communication for many on the spectrum, because it is a permanent artifact, an actual piece of paper they can go back to and reread as often as necessary. The spoken word evaporates as soon as it is said, but the printed word is still there. Visual schedules and reminders are very effective for many on the spectrum. When a child has not yet learned to read print, she can still “read” pictures or visual icons, which can be used to communicate, to give directions, or to show the daily schedule. Having visual reminders the student can read can go a long way in reducing stress and repetitive questioning about what’s going to happen or what they’re supposed to do. Even after it seems as if the student does not need the pictorial reminders, don’t fade them out. A student who can read may forget how under stress. A pictorial reminder of what to do in a fire drill may be just what he needs, no matter how well he reads on his good days.
It is important to look at more than just how many words she can read quickly, or how flexibly he sounds out new words; comprehension, or understanding what he reads, is necessary to make meaning out of the words. When you have your next IEP meeting when your child’s reading has been evaluated, ask how her comprehension is compared to others her age. If it is not up to par, your team will probably write a goal to work on improving reading comprehension.
- Pair pictures or icons with written words even after they can read
- Don’t fade the visuals or quit using them, just make them age appropriate; we all use visuals, such as calendars and to-do lists, every day.
Many autistic students have fine motor challenges that can make writing difficult or even painful. They may struggle to hold a pencil and form letters laboriously and clumsily. Teachers and parents may be amazed at the childish scrawls if the student is also an excellent artist, drawing and painting in beautiful detail. Remember, though, the artistic brain where drawing happens is not the same part of the brain where writing starts.
For some students, using a keyboard is easy and makes for legible written assignments. For those who cannot easily use a keyboard but can speak, there are voice-activated writing programs such as Dragon by Nuance. However, these may be difficult to adapt to, and if your student’s voice varies in pitch and tone it may be difficult for the program to understand and correctly interpret what the speaker says. If writing is a problem for your child, talk to their IEP team about solutions.
- Don’t assume fine motor ability based on artistic ability
- Don’t force handwriting – keyboards exist! This generation will grow up in a different world than we did, and keyboarding skills will be far more important than cursive writing.
I hope this was useful as you contemplate your child’s communication skills. Be thinking about all kinds of communication as you plan for your child’s next school year.