(Note: Speechie is slang for speech pathologist. I couldn’t resist the pun. You’re welcome!)
If you’re familiar with my other posts, you’ll know that we don’t really do therapy in our house.
If you’re not, well, now you know!
There are some quite good reasons for that – mostly to do with the validity of the research, the methods used, and the respect that is often not accorded to autistic people during therapy. All of that is discussed much more thoroughly in other posts here on the blog – I’ll put some links at the bottom for you to follow if you’re interested.
This post is not about the why, but the how. Many times I’ve seen it assumed that “we don’t see therapists” means “we do nothing to support our child”. Which is puzzling, because what it actually means is “we don’t see therapists”. Nevertheless, the idea continues, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about what we do instead of therapy.
1. We’re patient. Frankly, I think this is one of the most underrated pieces of advice given to parents. Be patient. Understand that your child will continue to develop their communication skills throughout their lives, and that what is happening now is no indicator of where things will be in a year’s time, 5 years time, or even 20 years time. Learning new skills, and developing competence in others, takes time and practice. Be patient. I can’t say it often enough.
2. We take responsibility for our positions as parents and adults. We don’t expect our children to make all the concessions. If our daughter cannot do something one way, it is our job to help her develop other ways that work for her, adopt those ways as well, and meet her where she is.
We’re the ones with more experience when it comes to verbal communication and understanding body language, so that means we’re the ones with more responsibility to make sure we’re paying attention and supporting her developing understanding of how they work. And we’re the ones who need to make sure we’re providing respectful, workable options for other communication methods (and that we are familiar with how they work AND how our daughter uses them – which may not be the same thing). Which leads to….
3. We model. Talking happens a lot here. None of my children are quiet. Not the teenager, not the seven year old, not the non speaking six year old. Not The Other Half. Not me, depending on the topic. We talk, we laugh, we read stories, make stories up, sing nursery rhymes, sing songs, sing theme songs to the latest favourite TV show or movie (Brother Bear FTW at the moment! Snapatoonies less so, as far as the parents are concerned). We talk about what we’re doing, what we’re going to do, what we’ve done. We talk about what we see outside in the garden, what we’ve read, what we’ve heard on the radio. We talk to ourselves, to each other. Talking happens.
We also use an AAC app on our ipad. NinjaGirl has not been interested in it much yet, but her brother loves using it to make up the most complicated and ridiculously hilarious sentences he can. We are completely child led on this – like reading a story, if I sit down to directly model it for NinjaGirl, she just gets up and walks off. Or takes the ipad and picks a different app to play with. But if her brother is using it, or I’m using it, she’ll position herself so she can watch out of the corner of her eye. And then later, I’ll see her using it by herself. Until she sees me watching, and gets up and walks away. So, we’re patient.
We use a small amount of signing. NinjaGirl isn’t interested in learning to sign herself yet, but she watches my hands closely. Her brother is interested in learning to sign, and there is a lovely show called Sally and Possum on a local tv channel that is narrated and in sign, which is popular right now with both small kidlets (and me).
We turn captions on where they are available. Captions are my best friend, because I love to read, and they help me when there is a lot of sensory overload. They’re also extremely helpful in helping people learn to read, and to develop spoken language.
We’re using a letterboard. NinjaGirl loves books, and is learning to spell – and speak – some of her letters. She loves to bring an adult a pen and some paper, and waits impatiently for us to write out the whole alphabet, followed by as many numbers as will fill the page. Then we sing the alphabet song while either she or we point to the letters (or she holds my hand and makes me point to them). And then we count. And then we do it all again. And again. Again. More. Be patient. She will also point to different letters and wait for us to write them out. She likes to point out KFC (her chips of choice) and ABCK for ABC Kids. Our next move there is to cut out letter tiles so she can arrange them into words, or into whatever arrangements please her.
1.2 We’re patient. Seriously. Be patient. Language can be tricky. A lot relies on context, and much of it can be illogical. Patience is your best friend.
4. We’re physically available for study. That may sound a little weird. What it means in practice is that sometimes NinjaGirl wants to see how our mouth, tongue and teeth all co-ordinate to create different sounds and words. So she will hold our faces and moosh our lips around until we start talking or singing. If we’re getting it wrong, a hand over our mouths quickly lets us know. Often this turns into making faces and funny noises with each other. Hilarity ensues.
5. We mimic. This could be part of modelling, I guess. But it’s important enough that I think it deserves its own section. NinjaGirl is non speaking, and very vocal. So we meet her where she is, and we mimic the sounds she makes, which are becoming more and more word-like. Just like when babies are little and we mimic their own sounds back to them as part of their language development. Often it develops into a game as we explore the different ways we can move our mouths and make noises.
6. We listen carefully. I failed at this recently. Echolalia has become very common in our house in the last 18 months or so, especially when it comes to song. NinjaGirl holds a mean tune, regardless of whether she is using words or not. We’ve become used to hearing her sing along to her favourite songs (I am sooooooo sick of the Frozen soundtrack), in tune, mimicking the sounds of the words. The more she does it, the clearer they become. So I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on this earlier, but in the last month I realised that she doesn’t just mimic the sounds of the words in songs, she mimics the sounds and patterns of spoken parts in her favourite movies. What I was taking for vocal stims and internal conversations with herself was actually the pattern of spoken dialogue! I didn’t see it till I saw her doing it at the same time as the movie and the pattern of the sounds fit. Perfectly. And once I saw one, I saw many others. Fail, Naomi! Pay attention!
Listening carefully is essential. Sometimes it is tricky because when you are used to hearing language a certain way, you miss things if they are presented in a different way. It’s a little like having to adjust to hearing a new accent where the emphasis on syllables is different. Every child will be different. It doesn’t just go for spoken language. It goes for body language, and for any other communication method. Each person has their own idiosyncrasies, and accommodating them is part of good communication.
1.3 Yep. Patient. You know it. I’ll probably say it again.
7. We accept. Next to being patient (!), this is the most important one. And one of the hardest. I struggled with it. People in our circle struggle with it. But you need to do it. Really, you do. Accept where your child is at. Accept it. You can do nothing else that is respectful until you do that. And then accept that wherever your child is, they may not ever use spoken language the same way that you do, or that other people do.
This is not the same as saying that things will never change. It is not the same as saying there is no point to doing anything. What it means is that you are removing what may be an impossible goal. NinjaGirl may never speak the way I do, or her siblings, or the person reading this. And then again, maybe she will. I don’t know. And in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Because our goal isn’t to make her speak just like everyone else. Our goal is to support her while she learns to communicate in the way that is best for her. To provide her with as many options as we can so that she can explore and find what fits. Our goal is communication, not speech. If speech is part of communication, then it is, and we support that. If it isn’t, or sometimes is, sometimes isn’t, then it isn’t, and we won’t expect it to be her main method of communication. There are other options for her, and for us. As long as we are open to accepting them.
Communication is one of the most complex human interactions. It involves so many parts of ourselves. It can be so beautiful, and so cruel. No one denies the effectiveness of dance, music, art or the written word to convey complex and amazing ideas. A splash of paint, string plucked, body moved. All expressive, all intense, all full of meaning. I am so grateful that my daughter will have so many options for expressing who she is, and what she wants to share with us. However that ends up being.
(P.S – Be patient!)
Here are just a few of the posts on Respectfully Connected about accessing therapies and the role it can play in autistic lives: