Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew: Part 5– Limited Vocabulary

23 01 2008

As I’ve mentioned before I just finished reading the book “Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm. The full article can be found on-line and the book is available at Amazon.com. Here’s the fifth part from an article by the same name:

 Please be patient with my limited vocabulary.  It’s hard for me to tell you what I need when I don’t know the words to describe my feelings.  I may be hungry, frustrated, frightened or confused but right now those words are beyond my ability to express.  Be alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation or other signs that something is wrong.

 Or, there’s a flip side to this:  I may sound like a “little professor” or movie star, rattling off words or whole scripts well beyond my developmental age.  These are messages I have memorized from the world around me to compensate for my language deficits because I know I am expected to respond when spoken to.  They may come from books, TV, the speech of other people.  It is called “echolalia.”  I don’t necessarily understand the context or the terminology I’m using.  I just know that it gets me off the hook for coming up with a reply. Being patient doesn’t mean being complacent. In Autism there are tight ropes to walk on all kinds of issues and increasing vocabulary is certainly one of them.

My son J borrows a lot of words. In another book I’ve recently read, Rulesby Cynthia Lord, the main character has a younger brother with Autism.  She understands that he has a lot of rules and she helps him remember and abide by those rules.  One that really hit home with me is “If you don’t have the words you need, borrow someone else’s.” Technically– in therapist speak– it’s called Echolalia. While it’s important to find your own voice– your own words. Effective communication can occur by borrowing other people’s (movies, books, songs) words. 

In our house there is a lot of movie quoting. My husband and I both work to keep up with the movie du jour so that we can fill in any blanks left by what J tells us.  He works hard to participate in conversations and other social settings.  He understands that he is expected to be a part of the group and he works to do so. He also has come a long way in appropriately using movie talk.

A few weeks ago we had dinner with my parents and J broke out one of the jokes he has recently learned: “What lies at the bottom of the ocean and shakes?”– A Nervous Wreck. He got a great response.  Everybody laughed so he told it again; we laughed again. By the third time it wasn’t going so well so my dad jumped in and told a joke and got J switched over to his short list of “knock, knock jokes.”

It’s so important to encourage positive social interactions and meaningful communication. Sometimes we focus on one, sometimes the other. In social settings we work to help him feel good about taking chances– confident enough to try.  My parents raised me to be independent in both thought and action; we’re doing the same for J, so fitting in isn’t the issue– relationships, comfort, self esteem is what matters.

When J was first working on spoken language we demanded that he use the word. If he didn’t know it we provided it to him and he had to repeat it. Then, we started adding on– Crackers. Want crackers. Want crackers please. Want Club crackers please. I want Club crackers please. Can I have Club crackers please– thank you. This didn’t happen in weeks– really about a year– and, with lots of meltdowns!  But we got through it and, he’s better off for the work he put in.

Frustration over lack of vocabulary can lead to huge, horrible meltdowns so it’s important avoid them in social settings. But, it’s also important to slowly and consistently push the limits– just a little… just enough. You know your child, you know what takes things too far and you learn how to avoid allowing things to get out of control. Trust your instincts and be patient with your child’s limited vocabulary.

Also– do not forget that Autism is a spectrum.  What works for one child may not work for any other child on the whole spectrum. Trust your instincts.




2 responses

23 01 2008

Thanks for reposting this one, always a great one.
Best wishes

24 01 2008

Yes! The painful weeks of ‘first, use noun.’ Then add verb. Practice. Add adjective. More weeks. More frustration. Adverbs. Practice. BUT–two years later, “May I have the red cranberry juice please? No, not in that cup, in the green cup with the cat!”
*small sigh* The work is worth it, but it’s work.

Sadly, our small town has no speech facility to work on higher language functions to really help Little Miss catch up with her classmates. The hospital clinic is all about reading letters and PECS and that level.

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