Language processing can be very difficult for many autistic people. For many children, learning new words as they develop doesn’t necessarily mean they are able to use their new vocabulary as functional communication skills.
For example, as a child my son was capable of reciting whole episodes of Caillou or Dora the Explorer. He was also able to count to ten in Spanish and had even picked up a few Spanish words. But he couldn’t verbally tell me if he was hungry or thirsty. If I would ask him what he did at school that day it was as though I was talking to him in a foreign language.
I assumed his silence in the early years of his life meant he didn’t understand. As weak as his receptive and expressive language skills were, I equated that to mean he completely didn’t understand anything at all. I quickly understood how wrong I was.
Fast forward to present day.
One night I asked my son to set the table. He was busy watching a video on YouTube while I was elbow deep in flour, making homemade pizza. I hadn’t bothered to look up when I asked him to set the table, so I wasn’t certain if
A) he had heard me or
B) he understood what I asked.
I assumed he didn’t hear me because he wasn’t getting up off his chair. So I asked him again, this time looking up, “sweetie can you please set the table?” To which he so appropriately replied “I heard you mommy, please be patient. I was just finishing my video. Don’t rush me.”
I silently chuckled to myself. I was so proud of him asserting himself and making me understand that not only did he hear me, he also understood the request. He was simply taking the time he needed to finish what he was doing.
This brought me back, way back, to when he initially started his therapy and the struggles we had with his language skills. He was non-verbal then and his alternate forms of communication were gesturing and crying. His therapy sessions included speech, O.T. and ABA. It was a hectic schedule but I truly believed that getting as much therapy as possible would be beneficial to his overall development.
Only now can I look back in hindsight and see how many times I and his therapists failed him. We approached him with the mindset that he didn’t understand. We assumed by his lack of response, his lack of eye contact and his lack of engagement meant he was disconnected from everything and everyone around him. ABA came into play then and we tried to “correct” this behavior.
We tried to break his silence by demanding compliance and following orders.
Back then I believed I was doing the right thing by listening to what the therapists suggested. In the early stages of our life in therapy, I held on to every word I was told. It wasn’t until later that I decided to stop listening to everyone else and I started listening to my son and my gut instead.
It would be years later, when Emilio was 13 years old, that he would tell me exactly how much he remembered his ABA sessions and how much he hated them.
We were sitting in a waiting room at a doctor’s office and he noticed a table that was identical to the one we used to own when he was a child. This table was set up in the basement of our house where the ABA therapist would come and work with him. The sight of the table trigged his memory. I was absolutely astounded at how much he remembered and even with the difficulty of searching for his words to express how he felt, he conveyed his feeling perfectly to me. I got it. I understood what he was saying.
During all those sessions, he remembered hating the feeling of being pressured to complete a command. He didn’t like the therapist’s grip navigating his hand showing him what to do. His avoidance didn’t equate to not understanding. His avoidance was a fight or flight reaction. He wanted so much to leave the situation but he had two people telling him he couldn’t.
I thought of this moment as he was setting the table. I wonder exactly how many times I have misunderstood him. How many times in his young life has he had to conform to what was being asked of him when he really wanted to do things his way? How many times has a questioned been asked not once but twice maybe even three times because his response time wasn’t as fast as the person expected it to be?
When asking a question or requesting a demand from an autistic person, don’t automatically assume that their lack of response means they don’t understand. In most cases they do understand. In most cases they are just processing the information their way.
Here are some tips that have helped my son and maybe they can help you too:
- When asking your question or requesting a demand, look at your child so they can see your face and hear you clearly. For some who do not like the eye contact, that’s okay too. Still look towards their general direction so they can hear you clearly.
- Sit in silence and be patient. Let a minute go by to allow your child the time to process what was asked. Don’t ask another question if they haven’t answered the first. This is just too confusing and rather overwhelming to deal with especially if the questions are fired off rather quickly one after the other.
- Ask your child if they heard you. Don’t assume their lack of response as not understanding. Perhaps they didn’t hear the question clearly. Repeat it for them with a tone of patience and understanding.
- Ask your child if they need help. Don’t assume they can’t do it. Assume they can but they aren’t confident enough to do it on their own just yet. Let them know just how much you’d like to help them with this task. Show them how and make them feel positive in what they are doing.
- Never force compliance. It is important to understand your child. You know them best. It is imperative to know when enough is enough for them. Pushing your child outside of their comfort zone is important but even that has limits. Know just how far you can push your child but never go over the limit and never force compliance.
- We often don’t realize how important it is to just take a few minutes and slow things down. We are a society that is constantly on the go. We are always rushing to get somewhere. We are juggling 5 things at the same time and expect top results.
How often have you stopped and sat still for 5 minutes doing nothing but meditating? Just 5 minutes out of your day to sit in silence. It’s not as easy as you think but I believe this is an important skill to develop if we want our children to be calmer and less anxious. They pick up on our energy and the more nervous and anxious we are the more nervous and anxious they are.
Life isn’t about perfection. It’s about making mistakes, learning the lesson and moving forward.