Tuesday 24 July 2012

Changing our communication style: declarative language

One of the most simple and powerful changes we can make to help our children and adults with autism improve their thinking and communication competence is to use declarative language.  My guest author for this blogpost is Linda Murphy, a Speech and Language Therapist and RDI Consultant who also has a Masters in Communication Sciences.  This article was first published on the Connections Centre web site and is reproduced here with kind permission from Linda.

Declarative language, plain and simple, is stating out loud what one knows or thinks in the form of a comment. It may be used to share an opinion (I love spaghetti!); make a prediction (I think we are going to the movies tomorrow.); announce / celebrate (We had a great time today!); observe (I notice that your friend wants a turn.); reflect on past experience (Last time this stopped working we checked the batteries.); or problem solve (We need tape to fix it.). Declarative language does not require a verbal response. Rather, it invites experience-sharing, and provides an ideal social framework for later conversational interactions.

Unfortunately, however, when people talk to children with ASD they frequently use imperative language, which is in the form of questions or commands that require a particular response. For example, "What color is that?"; "What is your name?"; "Say: block;" and "Look at me", are all imperatives. The problem with this type of language is that it does not teach children how to become authentic communication partners, because its circumscribed nature does not invite experience-sharing, which is the basis for interactive language use. Indeed, when people primarily use imperative language with a child, he or she learns, incorrectly, that communication consists of right and wrong answers and questions and directive. It also teaches that the main purpose of communication is instrumental; that is, to "get" something from another person. In truth, authentic communication is primarily about experience-sharing. We communicate with others to share memories, gather information, learn about one another and the world, seek different opinions, and share emotions. While it is true that we sometimes need to communicate in order to "get" something, if children with ASD are to learn how to socially communicate with others, they need a linguistic environment that is rooted in declarative language input.

If truth be told, children with ASD do not need language models that lead to the development of instrumental language use, for it is common knowledge that as their language progresses, it is often characterized by scripts and rote language that is instrumental, as opposed to social in nature. Furthermore, children with ASD often become "stuck" at the instrumental level and fail to reach the next (higher) level of language development which involves generating the creative, flexible, and dynamic language that comes so easily to typical language learners.

The question to ask is: What can we do to help the child with ASD generate creative language? The first step in this teaching process actually begins with the adult (which is very good news, because we are in control of what we do!). So, we need to take a step back and become aware of the type of language that we are using with the child. Are we asking the child with ASD a lot of questions (many of which we already know the answer to!)? Are we using too many commands? Is most of our language input designed to get something from the child? Or, are we generously giving information and sharing experiences so that the child can learn, over time, to do the same in return?

In contrast to the erroneous assumption that children with ASD cannot learn from this type of language input, I have found that mindful use of declarative language with children with ASD can make a huge difference in their ability to share experiences and memories; notice things; problem solve; understand perspective; and communicate on a more dynamic and creative level. That said, it is important to note that the language gains that result from ongoing exposure to declarative language take time, for the focus is not on words, per se, but rather on the use of those words for authentic communication. The challenge then is for us to make the commitment to change how we communicate with children with ASD, and to exercise the patience required to see results.

The following contains additional information on the benefits of using declarative language input with children on the autism spectrum:

Model self-narratives to help your child develop his or her own "inner voice"

A critically important by-product of language acquisition is that of developing an inner voice to problem-solve and plan. For example, imagine that you are getting ready to go to work and you can't find your keys. Your inner voice may say something like, "Now when did I last see my keys? What jacket did I have on?" Basically, your inner voice helps you think through the problem calmly and gets you started on a plan of action to solve it.

Children with ASD do not usually develop this inner voice to regulate their thoughts, actions and emotions. To help them to develop this ability, think out loud. For example, make predictions; ponder opportunities; consider possibilities; and reflect on past experiences when you are with your child or student. By so doing, you will be providing a clear language model from which the child can begin to form his or her own inner voice.

Provide a window into another person's perspective

Most of us know that children with ASD have difficulty taking perspective. Using declarative language to share your thoughts and feelings provides children with a window into the way you view the world in an inviting, nonthreatening way. In addition, if different people regularly use declarative language for this purpose, we help the child to understand that different people have different thoughts, opinions, perspectives, and emotions.

Help your child "zoom out" to see the big picture

It is well known that children with ASD tend to focus on details, but fail to put them together to understand the big picture. When we use imperative language, we inadvertently promote this focus. For example, if we tell a child to "put the toy in the toy box" or "say goodbye to Grandma", we are zooming into the details and creating a situation where there is one and only one right answer. If, on the other hand, we use declarative language to comment on what we see in the big picture, we help the child to notice the context; integrate this new information with previously stored knowledge; and subsequently form a plan of action that makes sense to them. For example, instead of using the imperative language noted above, use the following: "I see a toy on the floor" or "I notice Grandma is leaving."

Empower your child to be a problem solver rather than direction follower

When we give a directive to children with ASD, we leave little room for them to go beyond the response the directive requires. The same is true for asking questions. In contrast, when we use declarative language to share information about the environment or situation at-hand, we provide opportunities for them to expand awareness and practice problem-solving. Think of it this way. From a young age, the type of language input that has been used most often with children with ASD has been that of asking questions and giving directives. Clearly, they do not need more practice in that area! Rather, they need practice in problem solving, and identifying themselves as competent problem solvers. That said, success at this level is more likely if you have been diligent in the use of self-narratives. For example, if you have staged situations in the past where you have said on several occasions, "My pencil broke. I need to sharpen it," then when the child breaks his or her pencil, saying "I see that you broke your pencil," (and waiting expectantly) enables him or her to generate the solution. In contrast, telling the child to "Go sharpen your pencil" robs him or her of the opportunity to solve the problem on his or her own.

Give your child reasons to visually reference and read what is going on in his or her environment

We know that it can be difficult for children with ASD to tune into the social information that is going on around them. Rather than telling them exactly what to do and when to do it, use declarative language to help them to notice what is important. For example, if it is time for a transition, instead of telling your child to "go to the table for snack" or "put on your coat," direct his or her attention toward the changes in the environment: "I notice that all the kids are at the table" or "I notice that all the kids are putting on their coats." Using declarative language in these situations helps children with ASD to recognize the importance of periodically checking in on one's environment to obtain the information they need. Over time they become information seekers rather than passive recipients of information that comes to them when there is an overuse of imperative language.

Linda Murphy has been a speech and language therapist since 1999. She is also a Certified Early Intervention Specialist and an RDI® Program Certified After spending two years working with adults with Autism, she decided to pursue a Master's Degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson College. Since then, Linda has provided services to children ranging from toddlers to young adults in a range of educational and other settings, including schools, daycares, homes, summer camps, playgrounds, her office, and university clinics. She enjoys working collaboratively with families and other members of a child's team. She has a private practice in Beverly, MA. For more information, visit her www.peer-projects.com or read more of her articles at www.examiner.com/x-39111-Boston-Autism--Parenting-Examiner.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Talking to your child about their autism diagnosis

One of my families asked me a while ago for some ideas about how to broach the subject of their child's autism diagnosis.  I put together this collection of excellent resources that had already been shared amongst my RDI colleagues as the result of a former query, and thought it might be useful to others, so am sharing it here.

With grateful thanks to Terry Frank; Barbara Avila; Lauren Wilson and Kathy Darrow.  Here goes.....

From Terry (initial query)

I am looking for suggestions and resources for parents who are wanting to help their high functioning ten year old understand his autism diagnosis. Also I'm interested in opinions from parents on the timing of this. We are feeling that he needs to understand the reasons for some of his behavior and difficulties in friendship.

From Barbara

1. Stephen Shore (adult with autism) youtube interview when Stephen is asked ‘should you tell your child about their autism diagnosis?’


From Lauren

It maybe important to emphasize the fluidity of an autism diagnosis. Just because it looks one way today, doesn't mean that's the only way it will look. And the child has some control over it- as we all do over certain innate differences
Carol Dweck has done some interesting research (not related to autism) about the impact of teaching kids about their brain and what they can do with it. The impact for kids of knowing that their brain is like a muscle that they can make stronger was a positive one. Some of her work on the subject is found here and here.
One family shared that to normalize the idea that everyone has differences they "work" on each member of the family shared goals they were also working on. We're all in process.

From Kathy
For my own kids, I have taken the route of letting all my kids know that they are all individuals with strengths and weakness. Mom and Dad have different strengths and weaknesses too! We all work on what we want to get better at. My son no longer asks about this ( he is 14 and really is not struggling socially in school at this point) but when he was younger he did alot of comparing himself to his older brother. I did not feel it was going to be beneficial to bring up autism with him over and over so making it more a family affair where we all see what each other is good at etc. From doing this he learned to process how everyone is unique apart from labels. Every person has weaknesses. He typically loved hearing stories when he was younger about all my weaknesses!

Thanks again to the above RDI Consultants.  One of the best things about the RDI community is that you always know that someone will be able to help with guidance and suggestions.
Hope that is useful for people.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Philip's school newsletter: 'The Nut'

I’ve got a treat in store for you all today. Philip has been writing a newsletter about what’s been going on at school and he has agreed to share it via my blog

Just to give some background – the ‘gang’ at school is called ‘The Nutters’.  Hence the newsletter’s title.  Philip (aka Philnut) is The Captain. B is ‘The Noggin’ (brains); I is The Tactician (strategist); and L (part time member – Philip’s brother) is ‘The Marine’ (covert operations). Our newest pupil, T, has yet to be inducted.


The Nut

The stones for the visitors are all set*.
We now have four permanent students at Bright Futures!
Bright Futures hits an all time high!
The heavenly strawberries in the greenhouse have grown red, yum yum!
*Except for colour blind people.
The stones
Recently, visitors have had a hard time finding our school, (as if their useless sat nav wasn’t annoying enough.) Even though we put up a sign saying ‘Bright Futures’ it is still hard to find.
So the teachers and Zog decided we should get some rocks, paint them in different colours, cover them in PVA glue, and put them outside for the visitors to see. So then they can go right into the school instead of going up the road and down the road and up and down then finally calling Zog on the phone to help them.

This should make much less hassle, and stop wasting people’s time. There is only one more small problem. People who are colour blind will still need help, but that’s not a problem for now. I’m sure when the time comes we’ll be ready.

Pupil numbers growing!

In 2011 Bright futures only had one pupil, that was Philnut. 4 months later I got a placement at the school as well. 1 month after that B started to come to the school on Tuesday, then after 3 months B’s mum and dad asked for a statutory assessment and with SR’s help (Educational Psychologist - Ed). Oldham’s local authority gave up and let B be a permanent pupil at Bright Futures.
Today we have 4 pupils at the school and 5 try to get a placement that means more money more Nutters and more friends! However B and T are not coming full time.

On the up

Bright Futures is in full bloom today! We have 4 permanent pupils at the school the rabbits feel at home and our clock business is up and running.

The Nutters have predicted that the local authority will be paying sacks of money to us so we will be able to build the treehouse! We will also become very famous across all of Britain, so we will get lots of people trying to get a place at the school so, more money! If we had a sales chart for how successful we are it would probably look like this:

Strawberry delight
Our strawberry plants in the greenhouse are red and good to eat! Our strawberries are better than any strawberry you can go and buy in the shop. Since there fresh from the plant and haven’t been driven from Canterbury in a filthy truck they are softer than a cloud and juicier than the storeys news of the world wrote before anyone knew about phone hacking.

We hope to keep on growing these gorges strawberries every spring so we can all enjoy them. There may be a few left from this spring and maybe more to come, but if you want one you better hurry because they don’t last long around other people yum yum yum yum.

Job jar
1. Someone needs to tie back leaning branch on patio.

2. Someone needs to cut the two long plants leaning in the way of the patio back.

3. Someone needs to make a list of light bulbs that don’t work.

And there you have it – a synopsis of recent developments at Bright Futures School

Thanks Philip! (from a very proud Mum)