Parents instinctively know what their baby wants or needs when they cry, but what happens when that baby grows up to have little or no speech at all? Many children with autism have difficulty processing language and may have speech delays. My child spent years in speech therapy before she ever uttered a word that I understood. I have to say out of all of my child’s disabilities, this one was hardest on me. I wanted to hear her thoughts. I wanted to hear “Mama, I love you”. Being around other children younger than my daughter was difficult for me as they could talk better than my child. Their vocabulary was off the charts compared to my child who had no words at all. It took years of speech therapy and me working with her at home each day. Building her vocabulary and speech skills seemed impossible at first. We were starting from zero. Then I had this overwhelming, exhausting feeling of “Will I have to teach her every word she ever knows in her life?”. How could I possibly do that?
Communicating with a child who can’t talk can be through pictures such as the PECS system. PECS are basically pictures strung together to make a sequence. When we were going to karate, I had a PECS picture of a karate uniform that I would show my child. As I showed her each picture, I would say the word and encourage her to try and say the word. Children with autism need and crave structure and routine. Having PECS pictures set up in a daily schedule each day eliminated those surprises that would make my child meltdown. She knew what to expect. In speech therapy, I saw how the therapist would use PECS pictures to encourage cooperation. The first/then principle was a lifesaver for us. Any time I knew that we would have issues such as transitioning from one activity to another, I would use this principle. First we get dressed, then we go to karate. First we pick up our toys, then we get a snack.
There are mechanical devices that talk for the child. If the child can’t ask for a banana, they can push a button and the machine says “banana”. There are many types of these Augmentative Communication Devices but one of the cheapest seems to be the GoTalk 20+ for $214.00. Agencies may cover this cost especially if the child is older and in need of one to communicate. Medicaid or Medicare may fund it as well. More expensive devices actually speak in sentences that the child types into the device.
Sign language is another way to communicate to a non-speaking child but some doctors and therapists do not recommend it. It was recommended to us by a therapist who said my daughter would never talk (she was wrong). We had a little luck with this but it was hard to catch my child’s attention since she had difficulty making eye contact. She would tend to look away while I was using sign language.
Many times I would understand what my daughter wanted just by being present in the situation and knowing my daughter. Her body movements, her expressions, and her grunts expressed a lot to me. What was more difficult is to know what she meant if she was trying to “tell” me something about what happened previously or what she wanted if it wasn’t close by. She would push me to the kitchen when she wanted juice or push my hand to a box that she couldn’t open. One of the issues of trying to communicate with a child with autism is that they may not be able to direct their eye gaze or point to what it is they want.
What can be harder to determine are the child’s moods. Is he agitated, frightened, sick, jealous or startled when he melts down? How can one know this unless the child can speak? I had no idea most times why my child was getting upset. Was she startled by the dog or does she just not like dogs? Is it the dog’s fur touching her? Does she really hate my mother or is it my mother’s voice that bothers her sensitive ears? Why does she scream bloody murder every time we drive up to my mother’s house? Is it my mothers’ pets that she is frightened of? Maybe she was startled once at my mother’s house and now hates going? I had no idea and my daughter couldn’t tell me.
Autistic children may have echolalia where they repeat phrases they have heard before. When my daughter first starting talking, this was how she talked. Through other people’s speech and what she heard on television. At times, it could be off-putting. Was that her talking or something she heard during the day? It did seem to have a delayed reaction too so she would repeat something she heard early in the morning from a cartoon that evening at suppertime.
Never give up on communicating with your autistic child with a speech delay. Children with autism may learn speech at a slower pace but most do learn to talk. Keep the faith and deal with one day at a time. Each new word that your child learns is a cause for celebration! Focus on what your child has learned, not on what he hasn’t yet. It will come over time. Just like pottytraining, autistic children learn things differently, but most do eventually get there.