Four Ways I Help My Autistic Children Communicate Without Speaking
When my boys were little, our house was chaos! It was filled with screams I didn’t understand, and frustration levels were through the roof for everyone!
One of my twins had just been diagnosed with autism. I didn’t know what that even meant yet. I just knew that I was failing as a parent, and my children were suffering because of it.
Fast forward three years – They’re now six years old. The constant screaming is gone, and my house is… Well it’s still chaos. I have four boys.
What’s changed? A lot in three years! But the most important factor in this improvement was their ability to communicate with me, and vise versa.
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 had very good receptive language at that age, and they both had varying degrees of difficulty with motor planning.
For them, signing more was just as difficult as saying it. But I didn’t stop modeling.
Now that they’re six, they’re able to sign a lot of words! All Done is a household favorite. One of my boys uses it in many different contexts. (When he doesn’t want to do something, when he doesn’t like something, when he doesn’t feel safe…)
So even if your child doesn’t mimic you right away, don’t stop doing it. Signing is a great visual for kids. 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 cried all the time, but that’s because they were struggling to express their wants and needs. I’d cry, too!
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!
But every time we left the house, they would become upset again. Car rides for children are supposed to be soothing, but it wasn’t 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 forgot 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. 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. Feel free to look into that.
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 to your child, “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 lay down the law.
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!
One of my boys uses a more complete AAC app called Proloquo2Go (P2G). Click here to read about his first year using it.
With P2G, he 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!