One of the most joyous experiences a parent can experience is their child’s
first words, be it Ma Ma, Da Da or whatever it may be. It is a milestone for both parents
The longer your child goes without speaking it can be a worry and take its toll on your own wellbeing. I would like to share our experience with our youngest boy with autism, who really didn’t start communicating with us until we sought professional help.
Our boy is a twin, and he is as different from his Twin brother as two siblings can be, both physically and in that he was diagnosed with autism at age 3.
Whilst this process is never easy, it was simpler for us, as it was our second time seeking a diagnosis. His oldest brother had been diagnosed 4 years earlier.
My eldest child had so many developmental delay issues and autism red flags that his diagnosis was far simpler. It was not so easy for our youngest. Apart from reflux, he was a strong and robust baby and had met all his other milestones crawling and walking.
The two red flags that made us seek help were firstly sensory issues such as seeking out and eating metal utensils and his lack of speech.
It got so bad we had to hide all the metal kitchen utensils. We placed them in the oven we didn’t use on our range. Over time we forgot they were there, until we smelt the unmistakeable aroma of melting spatulas in our now ruined oven!
We had experience of speech delay with our eldest child and knew the importance of early intervention and wanted to seek guidance as soon as we could.
Our beautiful boy was not achieving the verbal milestones that his twin brother was reaching. Such as:
· Your child may now have an average of three clear words: for example, ‘mama’, ‘dada’ and usually some familiar object name – for example, ‘car’ or ‘drink’. It will help if you repeat the words back to your child to provide a clear model and shape to these early words. He or she will use babble and a combination of words. Together with the use of intonation, this all helps to convey meaning.
· Your child will also start to imitate familiar words on a more regular basis. Children love to copy! He or she will laugh and shout a great deal and make lots of noises and grunts. He or she will enjoy making the sounds of familiar animals and objects.
You can see more speech and language development early years milestones here
Our boy was doing none of this and seemed happy but in his own world, a place we wanted to enter.
Resources were limited as they are everywhere, but we manged to get a diagnosis and refereed to an early intervention team, which was a God send for our family and our boy. It got him the help he needed.
It took time, and for 2 years we only saw gradual progress with limited words and simple sentence structures but at least we could communicate with our beautiful boy.
During the first Covid lockdown, I feared as many of us did that the lack of routine and specialised support would see our child regress. And yes, in certain ways it did, especially around the anxiety due to a lack of the security of his daily routine.
However, something happened that surprised us in a pleasant way, his speech began to improve. Was this due to our home-schooling? I’d like to say it was, but it was schooling of another sort that gave our child a leap forward in his language skills.
The wonderful speech and language therapists who had supported our child over the last three years had given him a framework and platform for speech, what was missing was a catalyst of enthusiasm. By that I mean, he had the ability, but did he have the desire?
What gave him the desire was an amazingly simple but wonderful cartoon called Bing.
Bing shows the "mishaps, mess, energy and wonder of being a relatively new human being".
The programme focuses on real-life situations experienced by many toddlers and their parents.
At the end, Bing summarizes what he has learnt in the episode, with Flop intoning "It's a Bing thing".
For my son, the power of Bing was the interplay of the dialogue which includes some of the key building blocks for development of playing alone and with others. Simple steps we can all take such as:
- Talk about what’s going on while your child plays. If you’re playing a pretend game like a tea party, use the names of objects, like cup, spoon and plate. You can also give words to the things you and your child are doing, like ‘pour drink’ or ‘feed teddy’.
- Help your child build longer sentences. If your child is speaking only in single words, you could try using two words. If your child is using three-word sentences, you can use four words, and so on. This way you’re not using language that’s too hard for your child, but you’re building language and vocabulary.
- Encourage play skills in different environments. For example, if your child likes playing with Lego at home, encourage your child to play with Lego at a friend’s house. Reward your child for using play skills in different places and with different people.
- Use everyday activities as opportunities for play. Any time there can be joint activity between your child and another person is a potential chance for play. You can also build playtime into everyday routines like bath time.
- Use play to help your child respond appropriately to challenging social situations, like understanding sharing, turn-taking, and compromising. For example, you could use a tea party game to help your child understand sharing food and taking turns to pour a drink with the jug.
- Use play to help your child develop everyday skills. For example, dressing a doll or changing in and out of dress-ups can help your child learn to dress themselves.
Watch your child throughout the day and look for the times when your child shows interest in an activity, however mundane it might seem to you. These are the perfect times to teach and learn.
It was this play which power charged our child’s speech, The Speech and language therapist had built the engine Bing was the fuel.
If you have any concerns about your child’s speech development, I’d urge you to seek support as soon as you can. Early intervention is key and as young children do not have as many established habits as older children do. With fewer habits, it can be easier to put a stop to any negative behaviours before they develop into a more serious, and harder to reverse, issue.
You can then get a support plan in place for your child
There’s no one plan that will work for every child. Each child is unique, and what will help them to succeed should be planned carefully just for them. Children with autism have different needs than children who just have behavioural issues. Your child’s early intervention plan is designed with their autism in mind. Their plan focuses on developing a variety of different skills, including language, listening, communication, and attention.
But remember the power of play and if your child has an interest as ours did in Bing don’t’ feel it’s lazy parenting but encourage it as part of their developmental plan.
For us in our house when it comes to my son, we say Autism it’s a Bing thing!
I’d now like to share with you some tips our Speech and Language therapists have given us over the years.
Learning is done through repetition and practice.
As children experience repeated situations, such as mealtimes and play, they hear the language associated with those situations and eventually they learn to understand and express themselves in this language, too.
Young children look, listen, and talk to socialize, express needs, share ideas and feelings, and to have fun.
Understanding Communicative Intent
Communicative intent is the “intended meaning of a verbalization, gesture, or behaviour expressed by your child”. It’s not always what you take from the action or what you think it means – it’s what it means to your child.
This can be a really hard concept for some people to grasp.
Anyone involved in caring for your child also needs to have a thorough understanding of how your child communicates.
You should explain this in detail to others – such as teachers, or day-care staff, extended family, etc. because they may need to adjust their expectations of communication.
Accept all verbalizations & behaviour as communication
If your child has limited speech, parents and caregivers should accept their verbal attempts, and behaviour, as communicative and work on understanding the child’s intent whilst encouraging them to try and “use their words”.
So, if your child points at the cupboard and grunts, and you know that means they want juice, give them the juice, and say “Oh, you want some juice, good job. Here is your juice”
Try and encourage them to say the word, it may come in time.
Create a personalized dictionary
Does your child often get misunderstood at school or struggle to communicate their needs effectively?
Here’s something you can try to help others understand your child’s communicative intent:
- Create a personalized “Dictionary” of your child’s verbalizations, behaviours, and gestures to let other people know what your child means.
- Include any planned adult responses. For some children, it takes time to understand that different responses can have the same meaning, so it’s helpful that adults respond to your child with consistent language whenever possible. For example, they may not understand that “No problem” and “Your welcome” can have the same meaning.
Understand Oral Language Expression
Even children who are verbal may have some difficulty learning and adding new words to their vocabulary.
Parents (and teachers) should teach new vocabulary words by using both visual supports and teaching the word in a variety of contexts to aid with generalization.
Kids who rely on pictorial representations to communicate must learn that a drawing or representation has a name, that gesturing to or exchanging the picture has a positive result in some way (i.e., it can give direction or tell someone what to do).
Understanding this concept is essential if visual systems are to provide meaningful communication.
Teaching With Play
Children learn best through play-based activities and learning new language skills is no exception. Repetition of fun, play-based activities can help your child expand their vocabulary and improve speech.
Spend time both playing matching games and looking at picture books/word books to introduce words while showing their meaning with visual supports.
Nursery rhymes, songs, chants, dances, etc are all great ways to expose young children to language in a repetitive, fun way that will facilitate learning.
Label household items with their name, and with a picture. You can draw these yourself or create them with clip art and print.
When you’re talking to your child use short sentences and gestures. For example, point to the label and clearly say the name of the item.
It may take a while for your child’s vocabulary to grow. You may go over the same word using the same games and activities many, many times. Don’t worry, that’s normal.
In the meantime, focus on understanding your child’s intent with their current means of communication.
But continue to repeat the meaning to solidify the concepts. For example, if your child says “Ba” and reaches towards a ball, pass them the ball, and say “Ball”, but it’s okay if they can’t repeat it.
Remember our children develop at their own pace and don’t beat yourself up if things don’t work straight away. Try, try, and try again. It does work.