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 ūüôā

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.

Workbox Wonders!

Now that the school year is in full swing we are busy, very, very busy.¬† R is in preschool for a couple of hours a day and having a blast.¬† P (1st grade) is going to school for¬†language/literacy work¬†for a short time in the morning and then for PE for 25 minutes in the afternoon and D (5th grade)¬†is taking PE, Music and Art in our local public school.¬† Apart from that we doing all the academic subjects for P and D at home, so we have a really crazy schedule this year (even crazier than I anticipated because D’s 5th grade “specials” schedule was changed).¬† I have to print out our schedule daily to see who has to be where and at what time.¬† It all seems to be working out, but since we have so much going on, I have to be extra organized with the homeschool subjects.photo 4

(Cue the music….) Workboxes to the rescue!¬† The “Workbox System” is a homeschool organization¬†system that was invented by Sue Patrick for teaching her autistic son.¬† Since then, many, many homeschoolers have used it (special needs or completely typical kids) and there are a million variations on it.¬† Google “Homeschool Workboxes” and you can see thousand of ideas to inspire you (if not more).

I “tried” workboxes for a while last year, but I used a hanging file system and it really did not help that much since space was very limited for each subject.¬† This year, we actually bought two shelving units from IKEA (Trofast) and put an old closet door between them as a desk.¬† What a difference!¬† The biggest advantages are:

1. For D, he can be more independent.¬† He has a list with a number by each subject and he can go to the corresponding drawer to find everything he needs.¬† Subjects that he needs me for are marked “with mom.”

2.¬† I don’t lose P’s attention while I am gathering the materials for our next assignment.¬† Last year, by the time I found the iPad, the crayons or whatever I needed, he was gone doing something else and wanting to go back to that for the next ten minutes.¬† Now it is so fast that we just move to the next thing without losing attention.

I was afraid that I would have to spend hours preparing the workboxes the night before, but honestly it only takes ten minutes or less.¬† Plus, all completed work gets put in the “All Done” bin and we are not searching around the house for D’s math test, or essay that has disappeared.¬† Raquel even has her own bin for when she wants to do “homework.”¬† I do not know why we did not do this sooner!

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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad “A Word”?

I almost named this blog, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad A Word.” I remember the first time I heard it concerning my children. My oldest (D) had an evaluation by Early Intervention for a speech delay when he was barely a year old and I remember that there was a Developmental Therapist and Speech Therapist at my house and they seemed to be trying to tell me something without telling me it directly. After observing him they exchanged knowing glances and mentioned how he constantly ran into the sofa and other objects. They pointed out his lack of sustained interaction and eye contact. I really didn’t know what they were getting at, but they recommend an evaluation by an Occupational Therapist and repeatedly used the term “sensory integration.” I locked the term in my memory and rushed to my PC to look it up as soon as they left. I found that it was almost always used when talking about Autism. “Autism?” I thought. “Well that can’t be right.” I read more and worried more and waited for the OT evaluation.
When the Occupational Therapist came to do the evaluation, she continued with the “sensory” talk, but assured me that it didn’t mean that he was Autistic. She, of course, could not make a medical evaluation anyway, but there began my journey that would change my life forever. Occupational therapy, Developmental Therapy, Speech, Floortime, tens of thousands of pages of books, countless internet sites, videos, evaluations, hyperlexia, IFSPs, IEPs, and hundreds of other acronyms familiar to the exclusive “Autism Mom” club members. There was no “cure” and for me, at that time, that meant that “experts” believed there was no hope. For some “experts” that is exactly what they meant. After six months of intense speech therapy failed to produce even one spontaneous word or sign and little, if any, understanding of speech, I was told that my son may never speak. Well, his the story of his journey “off” the spectrum (maybe, maybe not) is for another day, but he did learn to speak and quite well, thank you very much.
When our second son (P) seemed headed for a similar diagnosis, we had little fear of the “A Word.” We knew what to do and he would be just “fine” also. We worked and read and took him to therapies, just like we did with our oldest, but he didn’t make the same progress. He was hyperlexic, like our oldest had been, but even more extreme, and was reading and spelling shortly after he turned two. He was so smart. Of course he would make amazing progress! Well, he has and he does make great progress and he is very smart, but he is still definitely on the spectrum. However, I don’t say that as a disappointment, like I would have ten years ago. I realize that he has his own set of challenges and his own unique set of strengths. Do I want him to talk? Yes. Do I want him to stop being Autistic? Not necessarily. My hope for him is that he can do what he wants to do and my hope for the rest of us is that the world will value him for who he is and not judge him by what he cannot yet do.
reading a book

sleeping with a giant book

unique solutions

spelling makes me happy

words all over the house always