Kelly Domiano, M.S., CCC-SLP

Over the years I have heard parents and educators voice their deepest desires for their loved ones on the autism spectrum. “I want Sarah to be able to tell me about her day.” “I want Michael to tell me when he is hungry or tired or angry.” “I just want Alex to talk.” Some of the most common wishes have a central theme: a desire for their child to communicate with the rest of the world. Indeed, these are wonderful goals that I have seen many amazing families (quite literally) bend over backwards in order to achieve. As a speech-language pathologist who works regularly with children with autism and as a big sister of one super amazing man on the spectrum, I share these dreams as well, but with one small (and by small, I mean big) tweak: I want them to want to communicate.

Communication can be defined as any means of sending a message to another person. As humans, we often use our words, our faces and our bodies to do this. We furrow our brows to show anger and shrug our shoulders in times of confusion or ignorance. With this in mind, we could also look at communication as having 3 different components: there’s the WHAT, the HOW, and the WHY. While they are all important, I think when it comes to teaching children with autism to communicate, the flashy WHAT and HOW tend to take front and center while poor little ‘why’ gets lost in the background.

Here’s an example: a 2-year-old Mary covers her mother’s eyes and says ‘boo!’

  • WHAT Mary is communicating: She wants to play peek-a-boo!
  • HOW Mary is communicating: She speaks by saying ‘boo’ and physically interacts by covering her mother’s eyes.
  • WHY Mary is communicating: It’s fun!  She enjoys playing this game with her mother.

Let’s give that why another glance. She ENJOYS it. Joy. The desire to share something with another person. Although there are a variety of reasons why we might communicate with someone, I believe that, at the core, our desire to have some sort of relationship with another human being is one of the biggest. Humans are social beings. We need each other, and what’s more, we WANT each other.

There is something magical that happens to us as little babies before we ever even utter our first word. Dr. Stanley Greenspan (child psychologist and creator of the Greenspan Floortime Approach®) describes it the best: we fall in love. We fall in love with our parents, our siblings and the world around us and we have a deep desire to know anything and everything about it. I believe that this is why we learn to speak as young children.  I also think that it is the piece that is missing from the fascinating puzzle that is autism. Before we demand that they look us in the eye and greet us with a smile on their face, we have to give them a reason to do it. The desire must be there before the words come out.

When we meet a child with autism, we have to figure out how to do that a little differently.  So how do we do that? Here are a few tips for putting the WHY first:

  1. Clarify your expectations. Think about your end goal. Eventually, of course, we want to get our children talking, but at first, our goal must be to get them to show an interest in doing so. This means we may have to hold back on making them say words, initially, if it seems as though they are not interested in talking. For example, instead of telling your child to ‘say shoe,’ make sure she is first interested in the shoe. Maybe try to put her shoe on your foot or hide her shoe in your pocket. Be creative and silly to get her attention and get her interested. Give her a reason to want to talk about the shoe.
  2. Let your child choose what and how to play and then join them!. Play is probably one of the best mediums of interacting with your child. It can be a really special experience, but sometimes we can feel at a loss when children play with their toys in ways they are not ‘supposed to:’ They may spin the wheels on their toy car repeatedly or line up their animals. Resist the temptation to force them to play the ‘conventional’ way or to choose another toy or game for them. Instead, build on what they are already showing an interest in, and show them that you are interested too.
  3. Imitate. Once you have established that your child is interested in a certain toy or game, you could start by imitating your child. If he taps his car on the floor, pick up another car and do the same thing. You are showing him that you want to be a part of his world. Eventually this may get your child’s attention and make him curious, which may in turn give him a reason to try to play with you.
  4. Get in the way! It is not uncommon for children with autism to prefer to play by themselves. It may seem as though they want nothing to do with us, but with a little creativity and a lot of patience, we can change that. Keeping in mind that our goal is not just to get them to play with us, but to get them to WANT to play with us, will make all the difference. A great technique from the Greenspan Floortime Approach® called ‘playful obstruction’ is one way of getting your child interested. Remember that car we were playing with? Maybe doing the same thing as your child didn’t work right at first. Now try playfully crashing your car into his or flying your car like an airplane that lands on top of his head. Most likely he will swat the car away at first (who wants a car on their head?), but you succeeded in eliciting a response from him, one that was entirely his own. Keep it up and try new things, you might notice his responses becoming more and more elaborate.
  5. Make sure sensory needs are met. It is very common for children on the spectrum to have sensory processing difficulties, such as aversions to certain sounds or textures. Imagine that your boss is trying to tell you about an important upcoming project, or your friend is trying to give you directions to a restaurant. Now imagine trying to listen to that information with sirens wailing, lights flashing everywhere, and while wearing jeans that don’t fit and the itchiest sweater on the planet. It would be pretty tough to pay attention, wouldn’t it? Even before we can take an interest in something, we have to make sure we can pay attention to it first! Making sure that our child’s sensory needs are met is therefore an essential step to ensure successful communication. Work with your occupational, physical or speech therapist to come up with a sensory plan for your child.

Children with autism have the potential to be very successful communicators, but it is up to us as family and educators to plant the seed. The best way to start is to show them that you are listening and that they are valued. Show them that even though their WHAT and HOW may not be perfect, you heard their WHY loud and clear. Remember, your WHY is really the same as theirs!