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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Language-Expanding Exercise for my Hyperlexic Boy

We have been busily preparing for our new school year, and I have not had much time for blog posts, but I want to post something that may help others of you that have hyperlexic (or even not reading yet if you just do this exercise out loud) children that need to expand their language.

You can’t really say that P is non-verbal.  He can definitely talk.  If he thinks you may have a cookie hidden somewhere, he will break out in one of his most common lines: “[Mom], Can I have a ____ (fill in sugary snack here), please.”  That is not a problem.  He can also read anything you put in front of him (although you may not understand well because of his articulation issues and he may not understand the meaning of all the words).  What I am trying to help him do, is to EXPAND his communication.

Lindamood-Bell uses the Talkies program for just this purpose, but he is really still at the very beginning levels because of some receptive language issues, so we needed something to help him understand how to describe what he sees (concrete and then later images brought to mind).  They use a modified version of the “structure words” in Visualizing and Verbalizing.

In V/V, the structure words are: What, Size, Color, Number, Shape, Where, Movement, Mood, Background, Perspective, When, and Sound.  Talkies simplifies it to: What, Color, Number, Shape, Size, Where, Movement.  I also have cards that I got here, that give a visual cue when needed. We use the nice, simple pictures in the “Picture to Picture Book,” to describe images, but I have also been using videos that P loves and making questions that get at those same ideas in the Talkies structure words.  We have a subscription to Amazon Prime and we use videos that are free with Prime, but you could use whatever videos you have.

Here is an example of one that we used this week:

Super Why: The Gingerbread Boy
Minute 0:00 through 2:05

0:08 What is the boy’s name?
The boy’s name is _____________________.
0:10 What size is the boy?
The boy is _____________________.
1:00 How many Super Readers are there?
  There are _______________________Super Readers.
1:10 What are the Super Readers doing?
They are _________________________.
1:41 Where are the children?
The children are at the ___________________________.
 
1:54 What color is the question mark?
The question mark is ____________________________.
 
2:05 What is the weather in Storybook Village?
The weather is ____________________________________.

We read the questions together and he fills in the answer.  If he is unsure what a question is asking, we looks at our structure word cards for a clue.  We started this last year, about mid-year and he had a tough time with most of the questions and needed lots of help.  Now he almost never needs help and I have seen him watching the video more closely, instead of passively.  He is excited to fill in the correct answers and I have made them just a little more difficult, but he has kept up.  I usually make one sheet of questions for each day of the week (from just one episode per week), so that one episode will have about 30 questions.

I have been so excited about this exercise and wanted to share it because it uses something he is interested in, helps him observe and describe (rather than using language for requesting all the time), increases his attention, and models proper questions and sentence structure.  I am hoping to soon be able to leave more blanks for him to form the sentence more independently.

If you would like to see the whole week’s questions, I am including it here: Super why gingerbread boy season 3 episode 5.
Feel free to try it yourself or modify it for your own lessons.  Sorry for any typos!  These are usually done at 11 or 12 at night!

Planning First Grade Homeschool

My middle son, P, is autistic, hyperlexic and has very limited language. This makes planning first grade a little more of a challenge. He is a smart boy and capable of learning plenty, but I need to teach him in a highly visual way and we need to work on language as much as possible. He will be in public school for Language Arts/Literacy and PE, Speech and OT, but because their expectations are so low, I am treating school more like a very good babysitter where he may learn something while I teach his older brother in the mornings.

First, I start by setting goals for the year and I choose which resources I will use to accomplish them (not every detail, just main textbooks, workbooks, etc. used for each subject).
Click here to see my goals and resources: P First Grade Plan and Goals

From my list of goals, I then break it out into months, setting goals for each month (many months are the same because we are going through a certain book or curriculum all year for that subject.)

See our monthly plan here: P First Grade Monthly Plan

The last step is to set a sample schedule to see if the plan will work.  See our sample first grade schedule here: Weekly Schedule P First Grade

It seems like a lot of work, but we prefer to do many shorter assignments, so it is actually only about 2 hours and 30 minutes of actual work each day.  We have actually begun our schedule already and P is as happy as ever and he actually chose to spend extra time doing a math app after all his work was done, just for fun.

Beacause P has such unique needs, I often end up making things myself, instead of using prepared curriculum.  Here are two examples of “journal pages” that we fill out daily to work on printing, talking about the past and expressing feelings.

P Day Review

Today I feel

I am looking forward to a new year of fun, learning and progress!

Competence

I owe much of the thoughts behind this post to Ariane Zurcher, who blogs at “Emma’s Hope Book” (see my “Blogs I Follow” list) and to the documentary “Wretches and Jabberers”, about two adults with Autism who learned to communicate later in life who travel the world encouraging others to think of people with Autism as intelligent. If you know anyone with Autism or if you will at some time (that includes pretty much everyone), you NEED to see this movie. http://wretchesandjabberers.org/

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to “presume competence” vs. presuming one to be incompetent. How many stories have we already heard of people with autism that have been assumed to have low IQs according to “experts” and tests, only to surprise everyone later in life when they are given a means to express themselves that works for them? How many more could have done so if they were given the chance? The idea sounds great, but how do I apply it to my own son?

P’s main delay is speech. Because he has not shown that he understands much of what we say, we often speak to him in short phrases, using words that we know he understands. We read books that don’t have many “unknown” words for him (although he may know them and we are just not aware) because we think that is the language he is capable of comprehending.

When I compare this approach to the way we treat R (our third child, who is two years old with no apparent delays) I can see where we may be going wrong and I believe that am holding him back. I talk to R constantly, even with words that I know she may not understand yet, because I believe that in time she will and I don’t limit myself to words that she has “proven” that she knows. What if I did the same with P? What if I assumed that he was capable, instead of making him prove constantly that he could understand? What if the way I ask “test his knowledge” is all wrong? Maybe he is annoyed at my constant quizzing and questions. I think that I would be annoyed!

In the documentary “Wretches and Jabberers,” it is said to be a “paradox” that two men with irregular patterns of movement, struggles with sensory regulation and little audible speech are completely aware of their surroundings and are intelligent, with much to say, but why do we consider it a paradox? Why do we assume that lack of speech means lack of intelligent thoughts? More importantly, what wrong assumptions have I made about my own son? I have never doubted his non-verbal intelligence, but I think I have doubted his ability to communicate.

The documentary also points out that people with autism may need additional supports, and I think that things like visual supports and writing things out are appropriate, but I can’t allow his need for those things lead me to think that he cannot communicate, and communicate well. I am challenging myself to confront my wrong assumptions and start to assume that my baby boy is capable, capable of learning without limits, capable of relating and connecting with others in a deeper way, and capable of contributing to the world around us. One of the participants in “Wretches and Jabberers” is asked if they believed that all people with autism can communicate, or if that was only for some with a “special talent.” His response was that communication is a basic human desire, not a special talent. What assumptions have you made about people around you with disabilities? Wipe the slate clean. Presume competence.

Yes, I am a “homeschooler”.

I never imagined, before I had children, that I would be a “homeschooler.” I don’t wear jean jumpers, don’t have a “quiverfull” of children and don’t have any real desire to shelter my children from the diverse viewpoints in the world around us. I’m not even a republican. (Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things. They just don’t describe me.)

Of course, I never imagined that I would have children that didn’t talk until they were four, or that I would put a trampoline and a ball pit in my living room to address my children’s sensory needs or that I would dedicate so much time, energy and money to therapy and therapeutic play and clean poop off walls and carpets as many times as I have. Children have a way of surprising you.

When my oldest was a year old and had therapists coming in and out of the house almost every day, we started DIR/Floortime. More than a therapy, it was a way of life, where you are constantly trying to engage your child and evoke a response – a smile, a word, eventually more. We did it all the time, six 15 to 20 minute sessions a day, but constantly in our interaction between sessions also, and it worked. D became more engaged and learned to talk and learned to relate and learned to enjoy interaction. I was so used to helping him, that I moved on from there to add in educational activities, sensory activities and others. We both had fun and he learned a lot, and I knew where he needed the most help. After he started kindergarten I realized that since he had different needs than some of the other children, we could do better at home, so that’s what we did. We worked intensively on his weakest areas and then tried school again. In the end, homeschool just seemed to work better for him.

P’s journey was similar, but different in some ways, because he did not have such severe delays as a toddler, but his delays later were much more extreme. To this day (at six years old), he cannot have a real “conversation.” Please don’t feel sorry for us. His challenges are great, but he is greater and God is greater still. It is “work” in some ways to be his friend, but there is a fun, happy boy inside! When I think of P, I don’t think of the smeared poop (so glad he doesn’t do that anymore!) or the struggles to get him in the car, I think of him laughing and making one of his “jokes” or running happily through the yard. He is just about the happiest boy I know.

P has had three years of Early Childhood Education and going on one year of Kindergarten, but that the greatest progress that he has made has been working with me. I know him better than anyone; I know what he knows already and what motivates him. I know when he needs a break and when he needs to be pushed and I know that he has the capability to do anything he really wants to do, but in his own timing and in his own way. I celebrate his uniqueness and laugh and learn right along with him.

I love and celebrate teachers and I don’t see school as the enemy or a dangerous place. Teachers have to teach many children that they do not know in ways that may or may not suit them. They have learned to do just that and that is really amazing. Almost all of the teachers that my children have had have been great, but homeschool suited them better. I don’t judge others’ decision to put their kids in traditional school and mine have gone to school part time also, but this is best for us, for now. I still not wearing a jean jumper though.

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