Inspiring Your Child to Verbally Communicate instead of using other forms of communication (PECS, Sign Language, Apps)

When you have a child on the autism spectrum, you are faced with so much information. There are a multitude of different approaches and ideas that are available to you. You can often feel overwhelmed in your quest to support your child in the best way possible, and be a little lost at what to try and when to try it.

Each goal you want to work on with your child takes intentionality and getting in touch with what you believe. Knowing what you want will help you understand why you are trying a particular strategy and then learn the tools to do so. If you dream of your child being able to verbally communicate their wants and needs, have conversations and express themselves verbally, then it’s useful to examine your beliefs around making this a reality. Then when you are ready to go for this goal you are crystal clear and focused on why you want that for them. 

Try asking yourself the following questions:

1. Do I believe my child is capable of learning verbal communication (even if they have not done so yet?)

2. Would I like them to use verbal communication?

3.Am I prepared to go on a journey with my child that requires dedication and persistence? 

If you answered YES to one or more of the above then then please read on.

When I began serving the Autism community (over 16 years ago) there were no IPads/Tablets with language and learning Apps. Items we have today like Talk Assist machines, Special Keyboards or Dynavox communication devices did not exist and it was a rare thing to see sign language being taught to any child other than a deaf child. 
However, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) was developed in 1984 and was implemented, particularly for children on the spectrum. Now, there are many of these different options for you to choose from. 

Here are some of The Son-Rise Program perspectives about these other forms of communication:
Since we believe Autism is a social-relational challenge, we want to encourage and invite as much socialization as possible. That means we use ANY opportunity we have to promote, model and ask for verbal communication.

When we approach language in The Son-Rise Program It’s NOT about learning more words, extending vocabulary and correcting grammar.. It’s about inspiring each child to LOVE the verbal communication process and seeing it as just one of the wonderful ways that they can connect and engage with another person.

When you use these alternative ways to communicate it can deflect away from the process of human interaction and sometimes lead to less opportunity and/or desire for the child to try to relate and connect with us and a propensity for them to exclude people and use objects or machines instead.

When children are hooked on electronic screens, devices, they can use these items in an exclusive self-stimulating way that is incredibly hypnotic and at times over-stimulating. This can lead to them being more disconnected and unavailable for social interaction and the very device we started using to help them communicate can then be used as one of their isms (stims). I have worked with countless children and adults on the spectrum who verbally ism/script from things they have directly heard or learned from the screens. This is not communicative language but exclusive verbal isms.

PECs and sign language are actually designed as an ALTERNATIVE to verbal communication, not an addition to it, so anyone who is trained to use PECS with your child (in the school system, therapies, etc.) will be doing so with the mindset of replacing it with the spoken word or opportunities to ask for language and inspire language from your child. Signing is another example of this, if you were asking for and encouraging verbal then why would you need a sign. The biggest sign that children tend to use is “more” and “eat” and if we are language opportunity seekers then we will be looking for more variation and tools for our children to use so they can grow beyond these two things and truly thrive with other children and in their own relationships, with their families, siblings, etc. 
We say – Go for the gold! We see parents of children on the spectrum and therapists teaching children to sign from as early as 1 and 2 years old and bringing out the PECS cards not long after that. This is of course done with the absolute best of intentions and desire to help the child however it does NOT promote the use of language. If this is being done with your child then why would your child want to do what it takes to try harder or challenge themselves more? So if your children are being taught these alternative forms of communication (with the belief that your children are going to talk) then they are less likely to HEAR any speech like sounds or actual words your child is making and they won’t be on the look-out for opportunities to teach language. 

We believe every child is capable of learning language.

We hear hundreds of stories of children saying their first words, talking in sentences for the first time, and having their first conversation after using The Son-Rise Program.

We don’t put an age limit on children – we know it’s possible for them whether they are 3, 13, 23 and even 53! 

Here are some perspectives to hold when going for language:

Be persistent – It’s a marathon, not a race, give it time. This is about showing you child that anything is possible. YOU can be an important role model to them about how you don’t give up on the first try, or the 10th try or the 500th try. Be a loving and passionate “wanter” and show them how determined you are to help them talk. Think about how amazing their life will be with this tool, how they will get what they want more easily and gain more independence. 

Work on eye contact and interactive attention span too! So there is a balance of what’s been worked on and presented to your child. Often when your children are looking in your eyes, engaging with you and are motivated, the language actually comes more spontaneously for them and the words start spilling out. 

Celebrate all and any speech you get instead of jumping ahead to asking them for more all the time. Your child (and you) can get burnt out when you ask for too much too often. Give more of what they love, give it freely and easily. The more your child feels successful for what they are producing, the more motivated and excited they will be to stretch themselves. Celebrating them will help you to form a stronger connection and show them how powerful their sounds/words/sentences are. 

Know that whatever you choose for your child, you are doing so for a reason and we encourage you to do whatever makes sense to you. If you are currently having success with any of these alternative forms of communication then that is nothing short of wonderful!!! 

Article By: Becky Damgaard
Son-Rise Program® Teacher

One Response

  1. Suzanne Morris says:

    I am a speech-language pathologist who has also taken the Son Rise Start Up Program. I read your article with interest and agree with placing an emphasis on verbal language and speech. I have some concern, however, with some of your comments about non-speech approaches to communication. Approaches such as Communication Boards/Devices, PECS and signing are intended to be Augmentative Communication approaches. Thus, they are designed as interactive, socialization systems that augment what a child (at that moment in time) is unable to communicate through speech alone. This is always the way I have used these approaches and combined them with work on verbal social communication. There are some children on the autistic spectrum who have difficulty with the physical coordination of the muscles used in speech. Others have have the movements themselves, but have difficulty putting the movements together for sounds and words because of a motor planning difficulty or apraxia. There are, of course, many therapists who are using these augmentative systems as an alternative to speech. They work only on communication and language with a communication board or signing and do not give the motivation and energy for simultaneously developing speech. I think that some of this stems from their inner belief that the child can’t learn speech. Some stems from the additional limitation in the amount of time available in the therapy session. Over the years we have learned that when kids have the means to communicate with another person by any means, they can be more connected with others in social communication. This usually leads to greater inner desire and motivation to develop speech communication if it is also emphasized by others.

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