This is adapted from a webinar by Mendability on fostering natural speech. Watch it here.
“daddy..tv..peppa pig…big tv…remote…help?”
This was what a non-verbal kid in Sudan said recently. She could only say two words for the longest time. Only two. To express a want or a need. What was heard were words but there was no tone to them, no emotion behind the letters.
After doing Sensory Enrichment for 6 weeks, this non-verbal little girl expressed exactly what she wanted. She wanted to watch “papa pig” on the big TV and needed help with the remote from her dad. Prior to this she only knew the essential words for survival. She has now developed a good sense of self and of how to express what she wants.
There are 8 early stages of speech development in children:
- Eye contact
- Imitating your sounds
- Mama, dada
- First word
In this blog we will discuss how we can help them move from one stage to the other naturally so that they can develop natural speech.
It’s important to note that all these stages are part of a plan and are crucial for speech development.
For example, parents usually try and stop the spitting. However, there is a physiological answer for why this is part of developing speech. You need to be able to control saliva production and circulation in your mouth. As a child, you suddenly realize that there is saliva and with that you discover your mouth and motor. Moreover, there is also a very tight link between finding motor in your hands and finding motor in your mouth
The next stage would be biting. Biting is a part of face and jaw development. An advice we would give parents is to not scream too loud when your kid bites you. (need more info here)
When it comes to vocalization, it’s important to know that any sound the child is producing is towards developing speech. They have a lot of vocal stims- sounds that aren’t conversations, but they are repetitive-. It can range from screaming to almost singing because at this stage the child is discovering their own voice and they are also practicing listening to their own voice.
That brings us to our main question:
What is behind the words that we find the kid anchoring to that word and develop more words?
As mentioned before, they start by learning phrases that get them what they want “more yogurt, I want this, I need that, give it to me” so how are they suddenly able to express emotions and say these words with emotion?
Autistic kids don’t make eye contact, they don’t smile when you smile, and they don’t respond to body posture or different tonality. Their sensory issues distress their lives and they experience overload. When you are talking to them their brain is processing more than just what you are saying- there is a visual, there is a sound, there is a tactile- they are all processed by the brain the same way. There is no ability to just focus on one thing, so the deficit is there very early. These all result in them not saying their first words at the age of 2.
In order to help them develop speech, we want them to go through all the stages mentioned. These stages enable us to talk to the brain through them and help the brain make the connections towards the next step of speech.
We recommend 2 things to help enrich the auditory system that the child is already trying to develop.
A sensory enrichment-based activity
You can play this music/story-based piece by Prokofiev called peter and the wolf and it’s told by musical instruments and there are no words. What you as a parent should do is show them pictures of the instruments as they are hearing them. This helps the auditory system.
Autistic kids have an amazing visual system. The problem is that this amazing system is poorly connected to the rest of the brain. Thus, they are invaded by visual info, but they don’t know what to do with it all the time.
By doing this activity 3 minutes a day, twice a day, we help the brain gradually develop that connection.
Due to the nature of the activity because it happens every day, we are just prompting the brain to make the connection between the two. An example of this connection is that when the child sees their mother’s face that doesn’t look too happy and the sound they hear is from someone that isn’t too happy either, they are able to associate the two together. These are the new connections that help them understand their environment better.
Put more feeling into talking to the child
Let’s say you are telling your kid to go brush their teeth. Change that into: wow, look in the mirror! Your smile is gorgeous. Should we make it shine?
With sentences like these, you are using an emotional, visual and open sentence to help them understand the feeling behind what you are saying and why you are saying it.
There are different factors that go into how we talk and how the child hears what we are saying
- Voice tone
- Voice volume
- Facial expression
- Body posture
- Eye movement
- Use of space
The child is exposed to all of these elements everywhere, but they might not be comprehend with them.
As a parent, you should gradually use these components to teach the child elements of social communication. Most parents just use close sentences like:
- Go brush your teeth
- Out your shoes on
- Time for school
- Give me the iPad
- Snack time
- Go wash your hands
They are closed sentences and they give information and the child is just supposed to go and do it.
Why aren’t these effective?
These aren’t sentences that YOUR child would tell YOU. If we put ourselves in the kids shoes for a minute, we are able to see that they are just receiving orders and information, would you ever feel like answering to someone who’s just giving you orders and information?
So how should we fix this issue?
- Speak softly – think about how you have spoken to them recently? Every adult speaks very loud to non-verbal kids. At first when you lower your voice it might come as a shock to the kid and they will think to themselves what is going on
- Use open questions and thought you expect a reply – it enables them to realize that communication is a 2-way street.
- Use tones and feeling
- Speak enough so that you can speak softly
Temple Grandin said once that her mom would speak to her slowly and slowly, she was like “I get it”.
You can put interrogation, emotion, joy and enthusiasm when you want to say “how was your day?” to your kid.
You have a different tone when you are thinking “I’m going to ask this, and my kid won’t answer and I’m going to move on.”
That is mostly because parents are very busy and if your child is non-verbal you are extremely busy. But these simple steps can go a long way.
At Mendability, all the children we work with would develop a level of natural communication with Sensory Enrichment.
Recently one little boy was very efficient in his communications. Before Sensory Enrichment, he would only say things like: ”I need to go to my bedroom.” So he was always on the go and was having close sentences. One day, came into the living room laid on the floor and said “I’m so happy.”
We want the children who can express what’s inside and share it with us and we can share it with them too.