Communication skill – having the ability to “request.”
As a parent of a child with autism, one of the most significant things you can do to help your child with autism is to give them a voice. Just imagine what it might be like to not be able to communicate that you need something. Giving your child the gift of a voice, whether that voice is through sign language, an augmentative communication device or verbal communication, could be the most empowering gift you ever give your child with autism.
Requesting for things that we want is one of the most important early forms of communication. An infant may cry a certain way to let a parent know that they need to eat, and they may cry very differently to let a parent know that they need a diaper change and are really uncomfortable. The reason I mention this is to emphasize the importance of requesting when beginning to teach communication skills. The nice thing about requesting for things is, that there is a reward for “requesting” which ultimately strengthens the requesting behaviour. For example, if when I say “juice please” it results in me getting the juice, I am more likely to say it again in the future because it resulted in the getting juice.
When teaching your child to request you would want to show them how to say what it is you think they are looking for, and then pause to give them a chance to request. For example, if I know my child is looking for a cookie or is reaching for a cookie, I might say “cookie” and then pause for a few seconds, if they still don’t say it I might repeat “cookie” and pause. If they try to say cookie I would immediately give them cookie. The key here is to give them an opportunity to try AND to make sure that there is a reward even just for trying. As they get more and more practice they will get better and better at communicating. In the example I describe a verbal response but you could do the same thing if you are using sign language, picture symbols or an augmentative communication device.
Here are 2 ways that you can begin immediately to help develop your child with autism’s ability to make requests.
Tip #1 Capitalize on his/her interests
When you know that you have a certain amount of time set aside, even if it is just 10 minutes a day, decide to make a point of working on requesting for that specified amount of time. Follow your child’s lead. Wherever they go, whatever they do, be in the moment with them and use the things that they are interested in to teach new vocabulary. If they are showing an interest in something like a toy or something to eat, you would model what it is and then give them an opportunity to imitate what you said. For example if they seem to want to play with a toy car or a doll, you could hold the toy in your hand, and say the name of it and then pause. Once they tried to say the name of the item (e.g., doll or car) then you would give them the toy. You might even take out some toys or items that they don’t see any other time to maximize the learning during that time. If it is new and/or not something they have seen in a while they may be more likely to want to play with it. As always, the type of things you would work on completely depends on your unique child’s strengths, areas of need and preferences.
Tip #2 Contrive learning opportunities
If you know you have a little bit of time on a given day to really focus on skill building with your child you can maximize the time by setting up the perfect conditions for learning. For example, if your child really enjoys doing arts and crafts activities, you could place all of the things that they might use to do a craft (e.g., construction paper, crayons/markers and scissors) on the the table within reach but leave something critical missing so that they can use their voice to get access to it. For example, you might leave the glue out of reach so that when they need to use it you can capitalize on that moment to build up their ability to communicate their needs. You can talk about the craft and get them to make choices for things like which colour of marker to use, which shape of sticker to use and the list goes on and on. You might put some of the items in a see through container with a lid and they can ask you to “open” it. The key here is to entice them to want to request for something. Once they do or they at least try they can get that thing which ultimately strengthens his/her requesting.
As with all of my tips, remember every child is unique and you should always start with where they are at. Your child is always right, and if they are not learning what you are trying to teach then we need to rethink how and what we are trying to teach.