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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Hyperlexia

Just before my oldest, D, was three, and still did not talk, he was already reading. Much before that, before a year old, he showed a fascination with letters and books. I loved reading growing up, so I was thrilled to have a son that would also enjoy getting lost in a good book.

What I didn’t know, was that D couldn’t have cared less about the story. He just liked the letters. He quickly learned the alphabet and easily identified all the upper and lower case letters. Soon after that he learned their sounds, which brought him a whole new level of giddiness. When he started putting those sounds together to make words, his joy was complete and that was what he did constantly.

We had some therapists that wanted us to take away the letters, and for a while I tried to comply, but letters are everywhere! Even if we took away his plastic letters, there were books and signs and toys with letters everywhere. In the end, we just decided to try to use reading and words purposefully. He was already reading, so why not use that skill to teach him the other skills he was lacking? This worked for us and by the time he was talking well, the reading (decoding) obsession faded. What remained was a tendency to read without comprehending what he was reading and that has taken years to address.

Hyperlexia is not defined in the DSM, so its definition is actually a bit fuzzy. There is a common theory that there are three types of hyperlexia:

Type I: A “normal” (known as neurotypical or “NT”) child that just reads very early. Development does not lack in any particular area.
Type II: A child on the Autistic Spectrum that reads well beyond language that they seem to have (receptive or expressive) otherwise. Many would call this a “splinter skill.”
Type III: A child that has some autistic traits, and seems to read beyond their language abilities, but the autistic traits fade in time.

I am not sure that these are great categories for several reasons. For one, hyperlexia type I is just an early reader. There is really no need to even give it a name. What do you call a child with no delays that jumps twice as high as his peers? A hyperjumper?

As far as type II, the whole idea behind the term, “splinter skills” is one that many people with autism have objected to. It conjures up the idea of a person that is “low functioning” (another not particularly helpful term) that has an interesting, though not particularly useful ability in music, art, math or some other area. The reason that people are surprised at these abilities is because they are presuming “incompetence” and low IQ. It would be better to just say that it is an area of strength, just as any of us may have greater abilities in any particular area. Also, reading is a very important skill, not some “fascinating” ability for people to stop and stare at like a circus act.

Also, I am not sure that hyperlexia type III actually exists. To say that the autistic traits fade in time may just be children that have successfully used reading and other abilities to “catch up” in areas of delay. The problem lies in how we define autism. Currently, it is primarily defined in terms of delays. However, if we could see what it actually is neurologically, I think that many of them would still have some of these characteristics, like my oldest, who has no real measurable delays anymore (falls into “normal” range) but still struggles in some of the common areas affected by autism (language comprehension, reading social cues, and others). We also know that the ability to read can be a tool to help the person move beyond their delays in development, even if they were born with the neurological make up that would describe a person with autism.

I think that hyperlexia can be better defined as decoding skills that are far above comprehension skills, accompanied by a fascination with letters and words. The term can be helpful when speaking to therapists and teachers because it helps them develop a plan to help the child. It lets them know that the written word can be a powerful tool for this child and that comprehension needs to be monitored.

My next son, P, was (is) an even more extreme hyperlexic. He read and spelled out words shortly after he turned two years old and surprised visitors and strangers with his spelling abilities. To this day, his favorite activities involve encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading) words. He also seems to understand language better if he sees it written first. Sometimes it seems that he just can’t find the words to say and he uses his iPad (with the LAMP Words for Life app) to make the sentence and then read it. Because he does have some spoken language, I was unsure if this type of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) would be useful to him, but it has become an important tool in our communication toolbox and I am so thankful that we have been allowed to use the iPad and app (for now) through his school. I am not sure what will happen next year when we will be homeschooling for a greater percentage of his day.

Some people have seen hyperlexia as a “disability.” Some have told us to avoid spelling with P, so that we don’t “feed his obsession,” even telling us to hide the letters, but I am glad that we learned by then that it was useless. It is just another way that he is his own person, with his own unique strengths and I choose to celebrate those strengths, not squelch them.