Communication is the most primary impairment of children on the autism spectrum. It is difficult to address because it is not merely a delay, whereby the child is late in aquiring language but experiences no difficulty once they do. ASD children have language disorders that make the acquisition and use of language very difficult. It is extremely important, in your home education plan, to make room for the special focus it requires.
If you have a child who is a year or so old and not making any attempt at speech, that is to say, not imitating sounds and at least saying Dada, Mama and Baba then it is a good idea to consult your pediatrician about having an early intervention visit. The pediatrician will tell you it’s too early. Not to worry until the cihld is 18 months old. Tell the pediatrician "Balderdash" and insist on walking out of there with the number to call. If it is too early and a week later your child is speaking wonderfully, well so what. You look like a hysterical nutcase for a few minutes and then it’s over. Small price to pay because if there is something wrong six months is waaaaay too long to wait. Six months is a lifetime developmentally speaking and if a speech therapist is helping you to help the baby acquire langauge earlier when there is a problem, it is going to make a HUGE difference in the future. HUGE. I’m talking incalculable.
I started Ryan in speech at 18 months old and I now kick myself for not listening to my instincts and just doing it earlier. Don’t be me.
So if you have an autistic child in the house it is likely you are working with a speech therapist. This is great. I am not expert on the legalities of this but I believe in all fifty states, even as a homeschooler, you are entitled to special ed services for your children. Melissa Wiley did a series of posts at her blog The Lilting House about her little boy and his need for speech services. She went through her school district in California and the related posts are extremely informative. Beginning the Process,The Speech Evaluation, and Getting an IEP. I strongle recommend reading through these posts. Lissa says it all much better than I could.
Once you determine the need for speech services and where they are coming from (private therapy or the school) it is important that you have a good rapport with the therapist and that the therapist is supportive of your homeschooling lifestyle. If you are seeing someone who is critical of your efforts then you should ditch that person and insist on someone new. When you have a therapist that is willing to work with you you are going to be amazed at how much easier your life will become. Your child will start to acquire language and will be able to communicate with you. This is joy beyond belief. I was Ryan’s mother for almost four years before he said Mama. I can still recall how weak-kneed it made me.
Now your speech therapist will give you lots of things at home that will help her do her job and help your child build language quicker. I want to share with you some things that have worked for me and others I know that helped and that are a lot of fun as well.
When Ryan was in school, I believe it was in second grade, he had an assignment to pick out an appliance and write a story about it doing something else. Kind of a transformers thing. It was a dopey assignment, like many homework assigments, busy work that parents don’t have time or patience for at the end of an already busy day. This assignment though really helped me. When I asked Ryan to pick an appliance he had no idea what I meant. Ok. Appliance is a big word for a child with a speech delay. I explained that he needed to pick the stove or toaster or refrigerator to write about. Again, blank stare. I occured to me that he did not know the names of these things. So I pointed to the toaster, "Ryan, what’s this?" Nothing.
In five years of intense speech therapy it never occured to me that I was missing some essentials. We had been so focused on conversation that the names of the things around him, language that other children just assimilate, was not something I focused on.
Evidentally neither had anyone else.
So the language building party began. Right then. Abandoning the goofy writing assignment (which I did often which is one of the many reasons the school district wasn’t devastated to see me go) I picked up a brick of Post-it notes and started to label. Everything. Ryan could read very well so this was easy. When David came home that evening he found his home covered in a sea of yellow notes. Every single thing I could reach was labeled. Including three-year-old Erin (sister). In every room of the house. Every cupboard, every drawer.
Cabinets, their contents, appliances, clothing, books, bric-a-brac, pictures, baskets, utensils, tools, windows, doors, moldings, curtans, furniture….
You get the idea.
Some of these things he knew. Many, many, many he did not. Those labels stayed up for months. Talk about beginning at the beginning.
Now this story illustrates a few points. The first is, I’m as dumb as the next guy. I didn’t know he had this gaping deficeit in his learning. The next point is that the next guy was a school system filled with "experts". Now, the schools do the best they can, I know, but the next time you are doubting your ability to home educate your autistic child please stop and think a minute. Realize that the teachers in school miss things, and neglect things, and run out of time for things as often as you do, that is, every day. What is different is that you will make the time to fill the gap. And of course, that you love him.
So your first step in language building and avante garde decorating is to label everything.
Now that everything in your house is labeled do what I did and move on to another language builder, scavenger hunts. Now since the child might not understand what you are asking for for the first few times you play be very basic. Corral your other children to play. If they are older and are able to understand explain to them that the object of the game is to help their little sibling learn new words. Now give every cihld a grocery sack and tell them to fetch things that are red. When your ASD child brings you something ask what it is. What do you use it for? What room does it live in? Do you like it? Why? Why not? On and on and on..
Warning! Make sure anything you don’t want to have dragged through the house is tucked safely away. Say your favorite red nightgown.
Don’t be too obscure. Ask for something, hard. Soft. Something pretty and something ugly (wear your thick skin that day). You get the point. As the child learns the names of more things then you can be more specific in your requests. Bring me something we use at night. Bring me something we use to cook. Bring me dad’s favorite ….whatever.
Another Language builder game is What’s Missing. Ryan has a speech therapist who encouraged me to play this with him everday. Place a group of common objects on a table and give the child a few moments to study them. At first make sure that there are only a few items. After your child has studied the group for a few minutes, tell him to turn around and remove one of the objects. Then ask the child to look at the group of objects again. Now see if he can name the missing item. Cue him if he’s having trouble. What color was it. Where was it on the table? What did it feel like?
Telling stories with photographs is another fun way to increase language and story-telling skills. Take out a few photos of special occasions. Tell the child in a few short sentences who and what is in the photo and what the occasion was. Then have the child retell the story to someone else in the house using the photo. If you are like me you have boxes and boxes of photos so this could keep everyone busy for a while.
I am sure if you think about it now you can see lots of ways to help your child build language skills. The best way, of course, is to speak to them. Endlessly. Until you can’t stand the sound of your own voice. Language is learned by experience so you are going to need to provide lots of experiences. The average child will just pick it up but our children need to have it force fed to them.
Read books, sing songs, listen to books on tape when you get hoarse. Ask all kinds of questions. Draw the child out. Don’t ask yes/no questions. Find your inner journalist and ask the who, what, why, when and where questions. Ask for descriptions, fill your conversation with adjectives. Spend tons of time outdoors and explain everything you see. Go on picnics, nature hikes, the beach, the playground, a farm and museum. No need to spend lots of money, just lots of time.
Don’t worry about your house or getting dinner. When he gets bigger he’ll help with those things. Right now the big priority is communication. It’s a huge deal because every month your child spends behind in language is a detriment. In twenty years it will be more important to you that your child can communicate than the fact that your house was clean or you didn’t order pizza much.
Get the whole family involved (you’re going to need a break on occasion) and surround this child in language. I will give you the best starting point.
I love you….