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  • Writer's pictureAlley Dezenhouse Kelner

When we talk, please speak my language!

Imagine if you had a friend who insisted on speaking to you in Klingon. Imagine if you didn’t speak Klingon. If it were me, I’d probably not hang around that person.

Imagine if you spoke to a toddler the way you spoke to your best friend; don’t get me wrong I’m all for “real talk” and avoiding baby talk, but you still won’t catch me using the exact same delivery with my two year old as I do with say, my colleagues.

Imagine if there was a person in your life who only spoke to you when they needed to instruct you to do something---personally, I would avoid that person at all costs. Wouldn’t you? We’ve all had a boss like that and I’d guess they weren’t your favourite person to work for.

In teaching communication we often forget 2 really simple ideas—

1. We need to speak the same language as the child!

2. Communication is interactive by nature; it’s much more than just giving directives.

Obviously we should literally speak the same language, but we should also be speaking, figuratively, the same language. If a child speaks with 1-2 word sentences, don’t spit out a paragraph at a time and expect them to follow; if a child speaks with an augmentative device or sign language don’t forget to acknowledge and respect that by using it in your communication with them. It seems so obvious. You wouldn’t teach someone to speak French by instructing entirely in English!

For many of our kids, vocal or non vocal, their preferred communication is non vocal—they’d much rather show you than tell. This is an important consideration when it comes to how we teach and interact with them.

One way you can acknowledge and respect someone’s “language” (or modality) is by using it. It’s really easy to forget, especially in early intervention (but that’s another beef I won’t get into now) that communication is, by nature, a two way street. It’s easy enough for us to get in the habit of issuing instructions “come here, go there, get your hat, eat your lunch, chew with your mouth closed, wash your hands...” you get the idea, but it’s imperative that we remember that though following spoken instructions is an important skill (for safety, skill building in other domains, and so on) it’s not the end all and be all of communication.

Teaching a child to follow instructions, though important in its own way, doesn’t help them build relationships or understand how communication can help them. Of course compliance is important, but not at the expense of authentic relationship building and interactional skills.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen early intervention programs miss the mark in this domain; when they do, they yield compliant kids who simply don’t understand why reciprocal communication is valuable; “he’s good he never protests”...OK but does he even know that he can? From a self advocacy perspective, this is problematic. For kids with autism we often have to teach this! Of course you should usually listen to a grown up, but did you know there are times you can (and should) object?

For many kids on the spectrum understanding the reciprocity involved in joint interaction won’t happen organically the way it will with many neurotypical kids. One way we can support the proactive development of the ability to interact meaningfully is by “speaking their language”; I can already hear people questioning me. What do you mean? Should I be accepting my child’s current level of communication (or lack thereof), not shaping more complex language, and generally not trying to teach them to speak MY language? Obviously not; but there is a time and place for everything. While we do want to be expanding communication (like with all children regardless of diagnosis) we don’t want to turn every interaction into a teaching trial. Can you just TALK to me without trying to TEACH me ALL the time?

Using natural environment training we can build on existing skills in a natural way, while we embed opportunities to show the child that there is much more to interaction than JUST following instructions. (By the way, when we don’t do this—and I’ve seen it MANY time---kids begin to associate all interaction with aversive conditions like being constantly told where to go, how to behave, and what to say).

We can use gestures which promotes looking, attending to my actions and interpreting them; we can teach the child (who may prefer to be the strong and silent type at times) that he or she CAN interact in his/her modality in a way that is on his/her terms. Don’t feel like talking right now? You can interact in other ways; frankly, I don’t always feel like talking myself! Thank goodness for email and text messaging, right?!

Taking the time to promote mutual interaction is essential for demonstrating the value of social engagement and communication. For kids whose primary deficit is in communication and social interaction it totally baffles me how so many early intervention programs totally miss this component. Not only does it impact a child’s motivation to attend and perform to skill building/teaching, but it impacts the child’s willingness to engage with others which in my humble opinion, is far more detrimental.

For kids who are inclined to tune out the world, for a variety of reasons, it is our obligation to give them the tools to interact in a way that is on their terms.

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