Monday 7 August 2017

How does one communicate when the world can be confusing?

Up until his third birthday L spoke a grand total of roughly 20 words. A typically developing three year old, should have a repertoire of roughly 200 words. L was missing quite a number of words from his repertoire.

Whenever we mentioned this to L's child care Educators or to medical professionals, they would defute what we saw with "no look, L can say more than that, watch, L say ...." and he would be able to repeat the word to them.

However the words that they were getting him to repeat were not a part of his everyday vocabulary.

So how does one communicate when the world can be a very confusing place?

Children with ASD generally find other ways of communicating their needs and wants. They have their own unique way of communicating and L was no exception.

Through L's autism diagnosis we were able to identify the many ways in which L was communicating with us and others, at the time we just did not know that they were all autism spectrum disorder traits.

So I thought that I would write a post detailing the many ways in which L used to, and still does at times, communicate his needs and wants.

Key Word Signing

Key word signing or Makaton is a simplified version of Sign Language and as the name suggests, the actual signs just represent words. When signing the word, you also need to speak the word so that the child begins to make the connection between the two. Key word signing isn't intended to replace the need for speech, it is used to assist the development of speech.

L picked up key word signing from a very young age and it was truly wonderful to see his frustration at being unable to communicate ease a little. At first L picked up the signs for please, more, finished, eat and drink. He would never say the word but the signing action was very clear.

I have used key word signing for children with special needs, children for whom English is their second language and for babies and have had great success with all groups. Key word signing is a very effective communication form and it really does alleviate a child's frustration at being unable to communicate.

Non-Verbal communication.

From an early age L also used a series of sounds, grunts and random hand gestures. He would point at a direction that he wanted to go in or at an object that he wanted. The sounds and grunts that he used, while they did not resemble words at all, they all had a meaning. O became an expert at being able to interpret L's communication form for us!

In the ASD world, non-verbal does not mean quiet!


Quite often if we or anyone else asked L a question such as "where are your shoes," L would answer with "Where are your shoes? Dunno."

But again L would never repeat the words voluntarily. They were only ever repeated after hearing a statement or being asked a question.

Echolalia describes the act of a child or individual repeating verbatim what you have said or asked prior to answering the question or carrying on the conversation. In effect, echolalia is the repetition of the speech of others and it is generally a consistent trait among individuals diagnosed with Autism.

Echolalia is a very normal way of learning to communicate and most children at some stage in their development use this form of communication to learn to speak. If you listen to babies babbling, it is usually done in a rhythmic way. A baby will mimic the cadence of their parents or carers speech. As their speech continues to develop, a young child will copy sounds, words and sentences that they hear adults and other children say.

So echolalia can be described as an attempt to communicate to others, to learn new language and to practice new found skills.

Most children tend to grow out of using echolalia speech, individuals on the spectrum generally do not. L was still using echolalia speech well after turning three years of age and he still uses it occasionally.

Another reason that has been explained to us for L using echolalia was to give him time to process what he had so that he could retrieve a memory on how to answer the question.

Mimicking the speech of others.

Another form of echolalia is mimicking what others say. When L was asked as a toddler to say a specific word, he was merely mimicking exactly what he heard.

L could say other words by simply copying what he heard. His speech wasn't very clear but he could repeat the word.

However the word that he repeated was never said voluntarily.

Scripted Speech

Scripted speech is another form of echolalia but it describes the act of repeating verbatim phrases or words that an individual has heard from interactions with other people or from television shows or movies often during completely random moments or for children during play.

Scripted speech is a facet of autism that fascinates me and it is something that both L and O do on a regular basis to this day. Quite often L and O will repeat entire sections of movie or television shows while they are playing and usually in the accent that they heard it in. Quite often the scripted speech will be during completely random moments! The accents that they both come out with are astounding!

What O and L repeat never changes from one play experience to another and it seems to be an ongoing action. I'm not sure that either L or O will outgrow this form of communication.

What? What did you say?

Quite often when you ask L or O a question or ask them to do something, they will respond with "what?" or "what did you say?" or "can you repeat that please?"

Quite often individuals with autism struggle with processing what they have been asked and as such it can take them a little longer to respond.

When L and O initially respond with "what" or "what did you say," we simply repeat exactly we have said. Quite often L and O are then able to respond appropriately to our request.

By answering with "what," they are processing what we have said and again retrieving a memory on how to respond. It's not that they are being rude, they just need a little extra processing time.

Communication Boards.

L has also used basic communication boards to communicate his needs and wants. A communication board consists of different symbols that represent a variety of words and/or phrases.

The communication boards do not replace the need for speech, again they are used to assist in the development of speech. While pointing to the symbol or picture, it is recommended that the word be said as well so that the child begins to make a connection between the symbols and the words that they represent.

There are many others ways in which individuals can communicate, these are just a few that L and O have used or still use.

So the next time that you are struggling to communicate with a child and they are responding in a way that you do not understand or seems frustrating to you, take a  step back and look at the bigger picture.

Is the child not communicating effectively or are we looking at their communication form from the wrong angle?


  1. I never knew how hard it was for them to communicate, but it makes sense! I think children in general have a hard time because they are so new to the world, they got big emotions, but have no idea how to handle them. I think too often, people treat a melt down or tantrum as a bad thing, but the reality is your kid is struggling! It's too bad we can't remember what it is like to be little.

    1. You are spot on, we need to remember what it was like to be little and not being able to understand everything going on around us. It is something that we need to take into consideration when speaking with little ones.

  2. My son had a severe speech delay. Reading your post brings back memories to when we were trying to get him to communicate. It is heartbreaking and frustrating for everyone involved. Providing other ways that they can communicate is critical to easing this frustration. Thank you for sharing!

    1. It is heartbreaking. Then on the other hand, you get a feeling of immense joy once you find other ways to communicate.

  3. I'm a teacher, so I see this ALL the time. I have taught elementary and middle school and it's really hard for them to communicate sometimes even at that age! Elementary it would just come out in bursts because of all the emotions and no words to help back it up!

  4. This post touches my heart because you have described exactly how life has been for my son... we recently got an aug comm device and it has changed his world ... Shell

    1. This makes me so happy to hear. It is wonderful once you start to hear or see your child beginning to communicate.

  5. Wow, you are an amazing mama, and I know you are helping so many other amazing mamas with this post!!! I love learning this so I can pass it on to other mom who are struggling with these issues.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I do hope that this information will help others.

  6. I loved reading the ideas for communication. Body language is a major part of communication. I agree sign language and other points you share here are very useful. thanks for the great post.

  7. This is very educational for me. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  8. This is extremely interesting, I think some of these tools are universal so thank you. And thank you for sharing your journey.

    1. You are most welcome and thank you for joining us on our journey.

  9. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt and informative post. What age did you figure out they L had ASD?

    1. We didn't really know for sure that he was on the spectrum. We knew from a very young age that he marched to the beat of his own drum but we couldn't work out what it was. From about the age of 2 and half onwards I suspected that he was but it took us until after his third birthday for medical professionals to take us seriously.

  10. My son turns 2 next week and he is speech delayed. He maybe says 6 words or less and just screams and screeches. He is in early access which is early intervention, I guess and he may be getting recommended to speech therapy soon. He only will repeat things out of his fav tv show and only that specific tv show. He may repeat what we say sometimes but not that often and if he does learn a new word, after a few days, you never hear it again. So the lady in early access said then lets not worry about speech, he will talk when he is ready, and right now try working on getting him to have less tantrums and melt downs. well I think he has so many because he cant communicate that well so how do i get him to have less tantrums? she just said that because he will reach for things and hold on to things thats him communicating, i get that, but that dont make it any less frusterating for him. Do you have any ideas that could help with his tantrums and melt downs?

    1. Oh my, I can relate to your frustrations. It is difficult when a child's communication is delayed as it really does impact other areas of their life. In regards to developing your sons communication skills, have you heard of Key Word Signing? It is a basic version of sign language and is used to assist an individuals developing speech. As the name suggests, you are only signing a single word. We found it incredibly useful with L. The other thing that you could try is using a visual communication board. This is a A4 or larger page that has various pictures and symbols on it. As you ask your child a question, you point to the symbols so that they associate the symbol with a word. You can get visual communication boards for almost any topic - meal time, play time, getting dressed etc. Again we found these incredibly useful. We found with our son, that a lot of his meltdowns were due to his lack of speech. As soon as we started with the key word signing and the visual communication boards, his frustration at being unable to communicate with us eased. He still has meltdowns but these are now due to being in sensory overload by his surroundings. I hope that this helps. If you need any further information, please don't hesitate to ask. That is what I am here for xx


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