Tuesday, August 22, 2006

non-verbal communication

As I mentioned in my last post, maybe this should have come before my post on declarative language. Because in typical child development, kids become experts in non-verbal communication long before they learn any words. Think about a baby crying to express it's needs, learning to point at the things they want. But it goes way beyond that -- even at a really young age, they are starting to learn to read the human face, expressions, body language (reaching up to be picked up, knowing that when Mom reaches down they are going to be picked up). They begin looking to parents for comfort when they are stressed. They are soothed by Mom's expression long before she bends over to lift them, as they know that the look of sympathy and support is followed by the physical comfort. You'll note that I am NOT talking about sign language or PECS (those would be two examples of other distinct types of communication). I'm talking about the normal non-verbal language that exists between typical people, between and around the verbal stuff.

The significance of non-verbal communication can be clearly seen when a young child visiting or relocated from another country arrives on a local playground. They don't speak the native language, yet in just a short time they are socially navigating their way into play with the other kids. Smiles, nods, pointing, general body language, laughing -- these are a universal language, the spoken word is much less important.

Why is it, then, that so many intervention programs for kids with Autism focus on spoken language without concentrating on non-verbal communication first? Shouldn't non-verbal come first in a program before verbal? What is the fall-out of teaching words without first teaching an understanding of non-verbals?

So even more important than changing your style of verbal communication with your child with Autism to 80% declaratives/20% imperatives is to cut out as much spoken language as you can and concentrate on teaching them how to understand and communicate in non-verbals.

For us, that meant stopping a lot of the verbal language that naturally flows from my mouth. The Map Man is naturally less verbal than I am, so it wasn't as huge a task for him. For me it was a mountain. Fortunately, all that time sitting on playgrounds waiting for Jacob to make his next move over the prior couple of years had taught me patience and persistance and how to keep my mouth shut (because throwing a bunch of verbal stimulation at him only complicated things and drew out the whole process to a painfully slow pace).

So, instead of asking him if he wanted fruit loops for breakfast, I would hold out a box with a questioning look on my face. Initially, I had to clear my throat to spotlight (another RDI term! Note to self -- I must write a post on Spotlighting!) that there was a reason to look at me. I also had to pretty much get right in his face with the box in the very beginning of this, wave it around a bit, make "huh? huh?" noises, etc. But eventually he'd notice me dancing around with the box of Fruit Loops and either excitedly yell "yes! Fruit Loops!" or burst into tears and scream "no no no no!". Either way, we had communication!

Slowly over time, I didn't need to be as dramatic about it. In fact, once we got a couple stages into RDI, he pretty much had figured out that my face and body had valuable information to convey, and he was tuned in to see what it was. AND, he figured out that he too could communicate with a smile, a gesture, a nod, a frown. A lot of the activities I did with him in the early stages of RDI (which I'll get into details about when I get through all this basic RDI principles jazz) involved only (or at least mostly) non-verbal communication.

So talking less is definitely one of the things I'd reccommend trying out with a child with Autism, though you can't just stop talking and leave them hanging -- you need to do all you can to make sure they have a chance to understand what non-verbals are about. Posted by Picasa

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