How I teach my non-verbal son

Please notice the title of this post. I know that parents are often looking for “how to teach a non-verbal child” or “how to teach an autistic child with little language,” but I really cannot tell you how to do that. I can tell you what has worked for us with our own child, who does not have reliable verbal responses. Around kindergarten I think most parents of Autistic children start to panic if their Autistic child is not conversing and one of the reasons that they are panicking is that they cannot envision teaching their child history or long division without reliable spoken language. I completely understand that feeling, but I know now, more than ever, that spoken language is not a prerequisite for learning. Moreover, it is a grave injustice to deny a child a chance to learn. Can you imagine how bored you would be if your were “learning” the same things over and over again for years? This is what happens to many of our non-verbal children in school because it is assumed that if a child cannot communicate verbally what they know, they have not learned it and cannot learn it.

I have been teaching P at home for as long as I can remember, even before we officially “homeschooled” and we have recently begun to use Soma RPM (Rapid Prompting Method), and some of these ideas come from RPM, but this is not a “How to do RPM” post. We are just starting the program and although we love it so far, we still have so much to learn. I used these steps before we ever started RPM, but RPM has helped me understand WHY many of these things work and has given us a more solid path toward open ended communication in education.

1. PRESUME COMPETENCE

I believe that my child can learn, and that he can learn on grade level. I believe not only that he will “one day” lead a productive and happy life, but I believe that for this grade, today, right now. Have you heard of the “least dangerous assumption”? Not the theological one – that one has some problems:-) The autism one. What if I assume that P can understand me? How does that change my interaction with him? What if I assume he understands the things I say in front of him, about him? How does that change the way I treat him? What if my assumption is wrong? What if it is right? I assume he is competent and that he understands. Does that mean he is tuned in to everything I say? No, but then again, even typical kids tune mom out sometimes 🙂

2. USE HIS MOST ALERT SENSE

In RPM this is called the “open learning channel.” In P’s case, he is very, very visual, so I try to support just about everything I say with visuals. He is also easily distracted visually, so I have to stimulate the kinesthetic sense by using small movements to help him to keep his focus on the lesson. Even though I try to appeal to the visual sense, it is also important for him to develop his attention to auditory cues and spoken language since that is what most of the world uses to communicate information (not that he cannot understand spoken language, but it is hard for him to maintain focus on it), so I am constantly talking and explaining things to him while I am also presenting the information visually. If you are not sure what your child’s most alert sense is, ask yourself: What do they spend most of their time doing? What are their “stims”? That can help give you a place to start.

3. KEEP HIM TUNED IN

As I mentioned, I use tactile cues and movement to help him focus. It doesn’t have to be big movements. It can be handing him a pencil, asking him to write a key word, tracing a drawing that I am discussing. I also change thing up as much as I can. I change the tone and/or volume of my voice, I change the type of letters that I am writing with, I change my position or his position. In RPM we keep a constant pattern going of giving information and then asking what you just taught, so you may say, “Forests are full of plants.” and then ask, “Did I say that forests are full of plants or cars?” or I may ask “What would I see in a forest? Trees or desks?” The purpose of the questions is not because you don’t think the student understands the initial statement; it is to make sure they are still engaged. I have found that P is perfectly capable of understanding first grade language (he is in first grade), but he may not always be paying attention, so if I expect him to learn, he must be tuned in to the material.

4. ATTEMPT. OBSERVE. ADJUST…. ATTEMPT. OBSERVE. ADJUST…. ATTEMPT. OBSERVE. ADJUST…. ATTEMPT. OBSERVE. ADJUST….

Here is one of the latest examples of how we have adjusted (this one with the help of Erika at ACE Teaching and Consulting):

ATTEMPT: RPM starts out by having the student select between two written answers.

OBSERVE: P has a habit of repeating the last option and after he repeats it, for some reason he wants to choose it. If you take the verbal element out (if he does not repeat) he will choose the correct answer, but the repeating is not something he can just stop doing.

ADJUST: If we just write the two options after the question, he is much more successful. Instead of saying “Tree or Desks,” we say, “this or this” while we write out the options. Voila! He can now show what he learned without being distracted by repeating the last answer.

Truly, the biggest hurdle is presuming competence. Once you believe your child can learn, it is just a matter of figuring out how to do it. If P has not learned something appropriate for his grade, it is only because of my incompetence as a teacher, not his inability to learn. Notice that I did not say “act like any other first grader.” I said “learn.” Pablo is autistic. It is no great tragedy, but it is a great difference and his communication will be different than that of a neurotypical child, but that does not mean that he cannot understand and analyze information and develop higher order thinking skills, just as any other child does. Who knows what that unique brain of his will come up with, if he is given a chance to be educated.

If you are looking for some inspiration or confirmation that your child really can learn, consider these:

Carly was assumed to have a low IQ and thought to not understand the world around her, until she finally found a way to communicate. Now she is a successful college student.

Ido was depressed and angry because he could not show that he knew what he was being “taught” and thought that he would be trapped forever in silence while no one knew.

Emma knew much more than anyone imagined, but could not express it until recently.

There are so many more! These are NOT isolated cases and notice that they did not suddenly start speaking. They learned to communicate in other ways. As one of the main participants in the movie “Wretches and Jabbers” says, (I am paraphrasing) “Communication is a basic human desire, not a special talent.” (Watch that documentary for several more examples of non-speaking communicators.)

If you want to know more about Soma RPM:

HALO (in Texas)

ACE Teaching and Consulting (in Wisconsin)

SomaMukhopadhyay’s books on RPM

Check out this page at Emma’s Hope Book for more Autistics that communicate without relying on spoken language.

And PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE (pretty please) read “Ido in Autismland.” It should be required reading for anyone that works with the Autism community or who has any Autistic friends or family members.

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One thought on “How I teach my non-verbal son

  1. Thought provoking post Lori. Thanks.

    I just finished Ido in Austismland and it was really interesting. It really forces questioning of assumptions — and the nature of communication.

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