Speaking isn’t the only way we communicate. I’d even argue that it’s not one of the best ways we teach and learn. If you’re skeptical, try this exercise:
Try and explain – without using your hands or any props – how to tie a shoe.
Communication is so much more than talking! We use maps, pictures, writing, hand gestures, and body language, every day to communicate. But when our children don’t talk, it seems like all of that escapes our minds.
As a parent of a mostly non-speaking child, it took me a long time to get to this realization. I didn’t even know what an AAC device was until my son was four years old.
When my twins were toddlers, neither of them spoke. They were often frustrated because they didn’t have the tools to express themselves in a way that I could understand.
Once we started implementing other forms of communication, they felt more confident and in control. I learned a lot along the way and I’d like to share some of that with you.
So with my hindsight glasses giving me 20/20 vision, here are the top four tools that helped my children communicate without speaking.
1. Sign Language – There’s a Catch!
Sign language is the first thing I used to help my children communicate when they were babies. We started with more, then eat, then drink.
Children typically understand words way before they can speak them. So signing is a great way to help them become more independent.
My older son did very well with signing. He was slow to talk, but he had great receptive language and muscle control. Overall, he was a typically-developing child.
I had a very different experience implementing sign language with my twins. I started signing to them when they were eight months old. As they ate, I would simply model signing more to them. I added other words throughout their day as appropriate.
Three months went by – They never once mimicked me. I didn’t know they were autistic yet, nor did I understand what challenges each of them had. Neither one of them seemed to have very good receptive language at that age, and they both had movement differences and issues with motor planning.
For them, signing more was just as difficult as saying it. But I didn’t stop modeling. And as the years progressed, they picked up a lot of signs!
So even if your child doesn’t mimic you right away, don’t stop doing it. Signing is a great visual for kids even if they can’t perform the movements themselves. And their muscle control will improve as they get older.
2. Pictures, Pictures, Everywhere!
My boys were over three years old before I began to understand what they were actually experiencing. They were constantly frustrated because they couldn’t express themselves.
One day, we tried putting food pictures on the refrigerator. It was a success! We printed out pictures of everything they ate and drank, and stuck them up there with little magnets. They were able to grab the picture, bring it to someone, and get what they asked for. It was magical!
Car rides and other transition times were another stressful time for them. It took me a while to figure it out, but they didn’t understand where we were going! Even though I kept repeating myself over and over… They still didn’t understand.
Narrator: In reality, it was the mother who didn’t understand. It wasn’t their fault she was speaking in a foreign language.
I started taking pictures everywhere we went, and of everyone we visited. When we went to the park, I took a picture. When we went to the other park, I took a picture. I took pictures of our family and friends, you get the point.
Whenever we were about to leave the house, I showed them the picture of where we were going. And when they became upset midway through the drive (because kids tend to do that), I reminded them with the picture again. Problem solved!
Pro Tip: Print, laminate, and cut the pictures. It doesn’t have to be fancy. If you don’t have a laminator, get one! You’ll thank me later.
3. Visual Schedules and More
We used all of those pictures to create visual schedules, picture binders, and first/then cards.
Visual Schedules: These are simply pictures placed in a certain order. We still use them every day. We have one in the bathroom to support them with getting ready. We use them in the car when we have more than one stop to make.
We often use more than one visual schedule simultaneously – one for the entire day, and another for something specific.
Visual schedules do not have to be fancy. Mine are made from laminated paper with a velcro strip down the middle.
Binders: Picture binders are an easy way to organize your collection. You can create sections such as clothing, places, and food. Or you can organize it by morning activities, daytime, nighttime.
There’s no wrong way to make a picture binder! You can use any binder, and organize it any way that works for your children.
Disclaimer: I am not an SLP. There is a program called PECS which also uses a binder and picture cards. I do not endorse nor do I recommend the PECS program. It is rigid and unnecessary.
First/Then Cards: These cards are similar to a visual schedule, but designed for a smaller timeframe. For example, your child might want to go outside, but they need to put shoes on first. This is a perfect time for a first/then visual.
Anytime you would ordinarily say, “You can _______ after you _____,” a first/then card can be used.
It’s important to remember, autistic children learn and live differently from typically developing children. Their emotional health is much more important than controlling a situation. So use these cards as a visual, not to enforce compliance.
4. AAC Devices – Don’t be Intimidated!
We’re living in the digital age! Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) apps are available in many different forms.
There are plenty of simple, inexpensive apps in your Google Play and Apple Stores to choose from. You can upload pictures, set schedules, anything you can imagine!
The only downside is that these phone apps don’t really grow with your young child. They’re perfect for a quick and on-the-go solution. But eventually you may need something more.
Narrator: If it works for one day, you should consider it a success!
With P2G, children can talk in sentences by choosing from thousands of words which are categorized in folders. But you can also customize it to show only six words, so it can really grow with your child.
Another similar app is called LAMP. I know a lot of children who use this program as well.
These more complex apps are often covered by insurance with a dedicated device (a tablet programmed strictly for using the AAC app). If you want to go this route, ask your child’s pediatrician for a referral for an AAC Assessment. This was a very lengthy process for us, but well worth the hassle. Click here to read more about our process getting approved for a device.
If I could go back in time, I would’ve saved up and bought P2G and an iPad when my kids were younger, without hassling with insurance. Almost all AAC programs go on sale twice a year: in October (AAC Awareness Month) and April (Autism Awareness Month).
I hope this (very lengthy) article helps at least one person! Here are a few things to keep in mind…
Communication is a human right. Speech is just one small part of communicating. These tools will not slow down speech development, so don’t worry about that. In most cases, they will actually help foster speech development. But the ultimate goal is communication in any form!
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