Teaching Language In Autistic Children...
Based On "Building Blocks" With Specific Order
PARENTS: This section is long but given the importance of language and the fact that so many children are non-verbal, this section is well worth the read for ALL parents. There is a little repetition in this section but it is because the sections repeated are simply so critical to the area of language acquisition that they had to be repeated to make this section as complete as possible. Please read this section carefully and in full... it too, will help you see autism in a whole new light!
As a watched an alphabet video with Zachary on 1/20/02, and I saw each letter flash across the screen, I thought to myself, hum..."Zachary knows his letters and indeed can read a bunch of words, yet, he is still absolutely fascinated by the alphabet and counting videos". I thought to myself that surely over time, these alphabet and counting videos would lose their appeal, but, they haven't ... not after two years of watching them. As I watched Zachary, he still enjoyed these videos so much. What made the alphabet and counting to intriguing? It took me a very long time to figure it out. After a few months, the answer finally came... PARTIALITY! The alphabet and counting provided building blocks on which so much of "the whole" in life are formed. They are the "lowest" level of language and mathematics... the lowest common denominator to so much more in life.
The more I pondered this puzzle of language and the autistic child, the more all the pieces fell into place. From this point on, I will be discussing "language" specifically, although this is equally applicable to teaching mathematics, or any other subject... the concept is always the same... teach things based on a "building blocks approach" from the very lowest level up.
As I continued to ponder the question of language acquisition in the autistic child, I started to really observe everything as it related to language. I knew Zachary's problem somehow had to do with "order"... so, I thought of the alphabet as it related to order and specifically, to the "parts of a whole". Now things began to make sense when it came to the acquisition of language in the autistic child.
Just what exactly "is" the "acquisition of language" or of "communication skills"... it is the "breaking of a code". And that is the key to it... the alphabet is at the core of communication... autistic children see this code everywhere... and until they can "break the code©", their world, in my opinion, will continue to be one marked by great frustration.
Perhaps the best way for parents to think of everything presented in my materials as it relates to the need to understand "the parts" before "the whole" can be understood, is to think of all these issues in terms of the autistic child's need to "break the code".
By this, I mean that in order to understand almost everything in his world, the autistic child must first understand how every aspect of every part fits into the "whole". This is true in everything from language to emotions, socialization to process completion, sensory (visual, auditory, touch, etc.) input processing to issues with potty training. All these things - be they behavioral, social, emotional, or sensory - must first be broken into their respective "parts" for the whole to be understood.
Thus, for the autistic child, in my opinion, life consists entirely of "breaking the code©" or breaking things down to their lowest level. Once each part is understood, the whole can then be "put back together" and understood for what it is. Until that happens, everything in the autistic child's mind will be perceived as:
A when it should be perceived as B
The key, therefore, in my opinion, lies in helping the autistic child "break the code" to get from A to B... and again, this is true in absolutely all areas of life for the autistic child! :o)
Given all this, what happens when the autistic child is unable to "break the code©" - specifically, as it relates to language. The answer is quite simple. The autistic child, in his constant attempts to "break the code©" attempts to understand communication and in doing so, engages in echolalia and "ordering language" - something that has, in the past been referred to as "nonsense language".
Echolalia And "Ordering Language" (Once Called: "Nonsense Language")
What some used to refer to as "nonsense language", I choose to refer to as "ordering language" and I encourage all parents to refer to this behavior as "ordering language" from now on... because, in my opinion, that's what it is. It makes perfect sense once you see it from the child's perspective... it isn't "nonsense" at all... and in fact, when examined in terms of the inability of the autistic child to understand the whole without first understanding the parts, it makes perfect sense!
In my opinion, echolalia and ordering language are simply variations of the same coping mechanism used by the autistic child to deal with stressful situations as they pertain specifically to his "breaking the code©" to understanding language. The child, in my opinion, is simply trying to "order" his world, to "order" what he has heard.
Echolalia, the parroting of everything one hears, has long been associated autistic children. It is my opinion, that echolalia is simply an "immediate", "on the spot attempt" at "breaking the code©" of language. By constantly repeating what is said, the child is trying to also "figure it out" as well as, I believe, commit the "utterances to memory" for future reference purposes. It is a more "immediate" verbal coping mechanism in the sense that the child is trying to cope with what is happening at that particular moment... what he is hearing "right now".
Ordering language, on the other hand, was a coping mechanism used to help "sort" those things heard in the past or still in the process of being "decoded"- but perhaps not pertaining to the current situation at hand. I saw this as a "less immediate" coping mechanism. It was one the child used as he went about - thinking - and trying to break that code that had yet to be understood. It was important to note that, in my opinion, "ordering language" could be related to something the child "heard" during the day, or something "he saw" for example. Ordering language was simply, in my opinion, a verbal utterance of "what" the child was trying to decode at the specific time the "ordering language" was heard. Hence, parents should take these utterances as "cues" of things to work on at that specific time to help their children "break the code©". There was no doubt in my mind that autistic children somehow process things "differently" and as such, ordering language could be quite frustrating for the parent who may have a very difficult time making it out - at least, at first. But, with practice, it does get easier.
There were many utterances that made me see "ordering language" for what it truly was. For example, when we were outside during the summer, I tried to explain to Zachary that it was hot outside by saying: "oh, hot sun!". When I said that, he replied: "cold moon". At first, I did not know what to make of that. But, as I thought about it a little, I came to see that Zachary was simply trying to "decode" the sun verses the moon. He had long understood the concept of "opposites" and knew that the sun was there during the day and the moon was there at night. He also knew that the day was generally warmer than the night. So, it obviously made perfect sense that if the sun was "hot", surely the moon had to be "cold".
Another example of this "ordering language" that truly helped me understand it was something that happened one day when Zachary was working on the computer next to me. I usually said: "sit down" when I told him to sit in his chair to start working on his computer. On this day, he was already sitting, but, he was very slouched, almost to the point of falling off the chair. So, of course, I said: "sit up". When I said that, he replied: "stand down". Again, he was making "opposite associations" in trying to understand his world. If the word "up" went with sit, then, obviously, to him, the word "down" must go with stand. Obviously, to counter such reasoning, I must admit was rather difficult for me at first. I simply decided to "show Zachary" the act of "sitting up" and to then show him that you can not "stand down". Instead, I could show him "lay down", "stand up", etc.
Siblings can be a great help also in figuring out the "ordering language" and what the child is saying. On many occasions, I found my daughter Anika, age 10, to be much better able to understand her brother than I was. She understood his utterances as they related to videos or computer programs... when Zachary said something and I just did not understand, often, Anika would say: "mom, he's talking about.... in this computer program". She was more familiar than I was with many aspects of his activities. She had watched the same children's videos, and worked on the same computer programs, and so, often, her insight as to what he was saying was simply invaluable. :o)
Ordering language was a coping mechanism used by autistic children in attempts to "break the code©", but, I have come to understand that "ordering language", indeed, has a dual role as a coping mechanism. The first role of ordering language was just that - it helped the child "order" his world - it helped him understand it! The second role of ordering language, however, was that it also helped the child to cope when things "fall apart", when life simply was too stressful and the child needed to "bring things back" to a level he can understand. In this sense, ordering language is used as an "order fix" by the autistic child when the world all about gets too stressful.
For example, when stressed out, Zachary reverts back to words like: "green truck", "a fan, a fan, a fan", or "circle, square, triangle"... these are all things that I can now identify as "coping words" from Zachary's perspective. A green truck is a concrete object he can visualize... with its spinning wheels and colors. A fan, too, is something else he can visualize - spinning - making the partial whole as the blades of the fan disappear as it turns. Circles, squares, and triangles are specific shapes... they never change, they are constants and so they provide "order"... or "an order fix" as I call it... a way for the autistic child to reduce his own stress levels by reverting back to "an ordered world" or to those "parts" of the world he does understand and by doing so, by "reverting back" to something he does understand, the child reduces his own stress levels and is allowed to remain "in control" of the situation. Thus, ordering language also provides a coping mechanism as it allows the child "to be more in control" of his world. A few concrete examples will better help readers understand this and to also understand why I came to the conclusions I did on this issue.
When Zachary used to be very frustrated at first, before I figured so much of this out... he often made use of one small phrase throughout the day... for what seemed to be no reason at all, out of nowhere, he would say: "green truck".
What was he doing or thinking when he said: "green truck"... out of nowhere? I had often wondered about that. I have now come to see that there were several things going on. Zachary had always been fascinated by wheels... no doubt because of the spinning effect they provided and all I have now come to understand about spinning (for more on that, see section on Spinning). While on the highway, if Zachary ever got upset, all I had to do was position myself next to a large truck and let Zachary look at the wheels for a while... they provided an "ordering fix" for him. Obviously, I could only do this where there were two lanes going in the same direction. Luckily, in the suburbs of Chicago, there were plenty of those "multiple lanes" - of course, those drivers behind me didn't always appreciate my doing this. :o) A truck soon became a favorite coping mechanism... as did colors. I was recently told by an adult autistic that - as a child - he perceived objects as colors. This was all very fascinating to me. For more on that, see my section on The Role of Colors In The Life Of The Autistic Child: The Pot of Gold At The End Of The Rainbow©.
If the autistic child indeed perceived objects as colors, the use of the phrase "green truck" as a coping mechanism now all made perfect sense. These two words provided for Zachary two very strong coping mechanisms all rolled into one phrase. The color, in my view so important to the autistic child and his understanding of the world, and the spinning... the making of the partial whole... provided by the image of a truck - these two things, when combined, indeed provided a powerful coping mechanism... an actual image the child can put into his mind to help him cope with the frustrations of life - on demand!
When spinning or other coping mechanisms were not available, Zachary simply resorted to saying: "green truck"... providing for himself yet another perfect "order fix" - a simple way to "de-stress" when life just became to unbearable or stressful!
An example of how ordering language was used as a coping mechanism, a means of "ordering the world" occurred on the day Zachary tried to figure out "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signs.
Zachary and I had gone to the store to buy something one day. As we crossed the street, I made it a point to show Zachary the "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signs. He repeated: "Don't Walk" since that was flashing at the time. At the end of the day, before he went to bed, Zachary started saying: "Walk... Don't Walk"... and repeating that over and over again. He was "ordering" what he had learned during the day... and in this instance, understanding this concept could literally save his life. It was at that time that I truly understood the importance of ordering language.
I often worked on spelling with Zachary... a subject he loves. I often asked him what word he wants to spell. Even though he is just under 4 and 1/2, "big words" did not scare him. One day, he asked me to spell one of his favorites, "wheelbarrow" (around that time we gave him many wheelbarrow rides :o) )... so, I wrote this word , on one of our many chalk boards. I then spelled it out with him. This day was really no different than most as we worked on various things throughout the day like potty training, spelling, playing on the computer, etc. As with so many other days, it was soon time for Zachary to go to bed.
An excellent spelling program that involved auditory learning
was that provided by the following company: http://www.writing-edu.com/spelling/.
For $99.00 parents could get 5 spelling CDs for levels A, B, or C. The
package included: 5 AUDIO Compact Discs, 1 set Flashcards, 1 set small "zoo"
cards, and Intro Video and Teacher booklet. This, in my
opinion, was a fantastic way to teach spelling! :o)
I had often taken Zachary to bed with me - what so often started as a desire to simply calm him down for the night usually ended with his staying with me all night. Too often, it was I who fell asleep first. :o) On this particular morning, January 20th, 2002, I noticed something - when Zachary awoke, the "nonsense language", which I have since then come to understand as "ordering language" started right away.
The following morning, the very first thing he said when he awoke, was.... "wheelbarrow... w...wheelbarrow". Again, this clearly showed that his "waking state" was certainly focused on "ordering" what he had learned recently. I had, in the past, seen him do the same thing with "walk vs. don't walk", with the "entire alphabet... a is for apple, b is for bed, etc., all the way to z... and do that twice, using different words for almost each and every letter before he could settle down for the night - at that particular time, when Zachary would "go through the alphabet saying words for each letter", we had just started to work on phonics.
I had commented in my first book, Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism, that, once, I observed Zachary almost in "neural overdrive" as he laid on his bed one night, trying to settle down. In this book, I commented on how it appeared to me as though "he was trying to order his world" before going to bed...a function, at the time, I believed occurred primarily at night... as we slept... that as we slept, our brain somehow "ordered" or made sense of everything we had learned or processed during the day.
Then, another thought/observation came to mind. The incidence of "ordering language", at least for Zachary, was noticeably higher at specific times of the day - first thing in the morning, just before bed, and during stressful, non-orderly activities throughout the day. At the time, I definitely believe that Zachary's problem could lie in the fact that his brain may not be functioning as it should to "order things while he sleeps" and thus, he had an intense drive to consciously perform the "ordering" function while he was actually awake... so I thought!
Now that I understand the need to "break the code©" in the autistic child, I see the need to "order" things in waking and sleep cycles. If the need to "order" the world was so all-consuming during waking hours, could this also explain difficulty in sleeping in the autistic child? Could it be that the brain truly was in "overdrive" even while Zachary slept? If this were true, then, it made my belief that for the autistic child - "Rest Is Work Too©"- even more true - because perhaps for the autistic child, there is much more going on during sleep than should be normally occurring when it comes to "understanding the world", and the "ordering" of what has been learned and/or processed during the day! I couldn't help but wonder. Was his brain in overdrive at night... processing more than it should in terms of "ordering his world" or was this function of "ordering not even occurring at night" and as such Zachary himself had to perform it consciously during the day? ... or, was it the opposite... that the need to understand the parts before the whole could be understood necessitated that the ordering function be the primary function during BOTH day and night? I had no way of knowing. All I did know was that Zachary had an almost innate defense mechanism that forced him to perform the "ordering function" during the day, while he was fully conscious or awake. His entire life seemed to revolve around his need to "break the code©" - in everything!
Given what I have come to understand about ordering language, I strongly believe that is should be allowed. In the past, I had thought this behavior needed to be "broken" or made "extinct". At that time, however, I simply did not understand ordering language for what it truly was... I still saw it as "nonsense" language... I still saw it as simply "an order fix", much like a "drug fix"... I did not see it as an "order fix" in the sense of it being an actual coping mechanism to make sense of one's world.
As such, I would, personally, NEVER discourage the use of ordering language in an autistic child, but rather, I would encourage all parents to use look as ordering language as a cue of something "to work on", of something "to decode" or explain. Upon hearing any ordering language now, I immediately look for the opportunity to show Zachary how "what he's trying to order or decode" - that part - fits into the whole. :o)
As the Zachary learns more and more via labels and explanations each day, I find "ordering language" now almost nonexistent. It shows up a little at night before bed, and maybe a couple of times during the day... that's it. The utterances are so few and far apart that most people would probably never even notice them now. :o)
Given the importance of this coping mechanism in the autistic child, I, personally, would NOT try to stop or prevent it IN ANY WAY! In my opinion, as the autistic child learns to cope and to understand his environment more and more, this ordering language should greatly diminish, and eventually, will most likely disappear altogether. :o) But again, the key to reducing and/or eliminating ordering language lies simply in helping the autistic child see how all the parts fit together to form a whole... in everything. As with everything else, when these coping mechanisms "come out"... I encourage parents to look for the source of the child's frustration and to help the child deal with that frustration through the use of labels, explanations, fractions, coping mechanisms like counting, etc... those things that provide productive coping mechanisms in that they help the child to break the code©! :o)
I would ask all parents to begin talking in terms of "ordering language". Personally, now that I truly understand "ordering language", the term "nonsense language" is offensive to me. The fact that this was not understood in the past, from our perspective, resulted in a label of "nonsense language" being tagged to children who, in reality, made perfect sense. The fact that parents, researchers, doctors, etc. did not understand this for what it was resulting in our associating very negative labels with these children - making them to be seen as having "broken minds", when in reality, it was simply a matter of our lack understanding. But, as with everything in autism or any other illness associated with "mental dysfunction" - it's all in the label - and quite frankly, I'm tired of our children being seen as "broken persons who make no sense at all"- because everything does make sense - when you see it from their perspective! :o)
Before we continue with other topics as they relate to language in the autistic child, I wanted to provide for readers "what I used to believe" as it related to "nonsense language". The reason I provide this is because there is a critical lesson here to be learned by all parents and professionals.
Luckily for our family, I quickly realized the importance of "ordering language" and it is because of this "realization" - that "this particular type of language is so CRITICAL to the autistic" child - that I wanted to provide an example of what can happen when a negative label is given ... simply because we failed to understand the autistic mind and chose instead to show it as a "broken mind" by associating it with a term called "nonsense language".
The implication of "a broken mind", to adults, almost by definition makes it that we "want to fix it" - especially if we are the parents of that "broken mind". That fix, can take on many forms... behavior modification or other "manipulation" methods that are based on reward - and, often, punishment - systems, the exposure of the child to countless tests, scans, etc., and perhaps most dangerous of all, that fix can take the form of medications... medications given to a mind that isn't understood - and if the mind isn't understood, how can medication "fix it"? Doesn't that, in and of itself pose a dilemma in terms of the "effectiveness of that fix"?
I knew tests, scans and medications were "out" for us as a family. For better or worse, we had made a decision early on not to go that route. I would thus try my hand at a little behavior modification. I had studied psychology through graduate school and felt I knew enough to give this a shot on my own. I know this was not the case for all parents, however, and as such, I want to caution all parents to read and inform themselves and consult with any professionals they can before undertaking any behavior modification program for their child. I understood enough of what is involved to tackle this. There can be many negative results to behavior modification techniques... indeed there are many techniques out there. I chose to stay away from anything that involved punishment in any form. Patience and understanding - those were the keys I would use in my "behavior therapy".
I used no negative stimuli, no negative reinforcements, there were no discrete trials, no use of fear or threats, no goal of a conditioned response, no practice schedules, no reinforcement schedules, no "steps" to work through via reward systems... my "behavior modification" consisted simply of seeing "what Zachary would do if all of a sudden, his nonsense language no longer made sense". All I was looking for in Zachary was to see "how he would react" to what I did... nothing was required of him other than listening to what I said.
My goal was simply to get rid of "nonsense language" .. to see if I could somehow make it go away. I knew that there was a reason for Zachary to use specific "utterances" we knew as "nonsense language", but I didn't fully understand why particular words were used, together, out of nowhere and seemingly making no sense. It is difficult to explain, but, what I was trying to do was to get to whether or not this truly was "nonsense language"... if it was, then, any "nonsense language" should produce some kind of response... I hoped I would see "my nonsense language" be used by Zachary too. But, if it wasn't "nonsense language" and there was more to it than I understood, then, my "nonsense language" should not be "used" by Zachary at all. Would Zachary see what I did as just more "silly things mom does" (see Exercises I Do At Home for more on that :o) ) or would MY "nonsense language" make sense to Zachary and would it actually be language he too would want to use and repeat? That was what I wanted to determine!
Well, if "nonsense language" actually "made sense", I thought to myself, I now needed to do something that would make "nonsense language" - not make sense! So, how do you go about doing that? I found the trick to it... but, it was a very difficult thing to do... requiring a lot of "on the spot creativity"... and at first, that was quite difficult for me. After doing it a few times though, it became a lot easier. What follows was an example of how I tried to "break nonsense language" in my son, Zachary. At the time, Zachary was about 4 1/2 years old.
When Zachary exhibited his "need for an order fix" as I had called it in my first book, as it related to "nonsense language", I went into action as soon as he had completed his first "nonsense phrase".
It is critical that all readers understand that at this time, I still saw the "need for an order fix" much as a "drug fix" ... not as a coping mechanism! This is a critical difference in terms of how I now refer to "ordering language" as an "order fix". Back then, when I did these exercises, I thought the "fix" from "ordering things" was almost like a "drug high" for these kids... that it somehow triggered something in their brain that they just "couldn't get enough of". I know that may sound crazy, but, that is what I thought at the time... and that is the "frame of reference" I worked with as I did these things with Zachary. Let's face it, there have been many "silly theories" out there as they relate to autism... like the one adopted by so many "experts"... the old "cold mother" theory... at least, in my opinion, my theory - at the time - made more sense than that! :o) That's how we move forward in our understanding of everything... you propose a theory, you prove it right or wrong, you keep the proven and then move forward in search of another theory or explanation to what was still not understood or proven to be true.
Luckily for Zachary, in no time at all, I was able to "disprove" my original "order fix equals an almost drug fix sensation" theory and see what the issue really was. It was an "almost drug fix... but not in the physical sense... what these children couldn't get enough of... I soon came to understand... was that within the "ordering function" for them, lay the key to "breaking the code©" to so much. :o) That's where the "fix" came from... the "ordering function" provided for Zachary a "fix" to understanding his world. It turned out that the "ordering function" did provide a "fix"but it was a different type of "fix" than what I had originally thought... but, "a critical fix" nonetheless. :o)
When Zachary exhibited his "need for an order fix" - which, at the time, I thought produced a pleasing sensation much like a "drug fix" would produce for a drug addict -, via “nonsense” language, I now took his very utterances – at that moment – and “used them against him” if you may call it that. For example, if Zachary was using “green truck” , one of his favorites, I start saying something like: “yes… did you ever see a green truck going down the road with yellow dots, purple stripes, orange feathers, with a squirrel on top and a dog driving?”
I made it so “unusual” that Zachary actually had to really focus to “picture it”… he just stayed silent for a few moments, trying to “picture” what I just said. I could "tell" that was what he was doing... trying to "picture it" in his mind. Then, after a little while, he would give me another word. If it was “a fan” or something else that “spun”, I made sure “my nonsense sentence” did not include anything at all that could reinforce the “order fix” he was trying to give himself.
So, I would never use words like: “did you ever see a fan turning…” because the use of the word “turning” could in and of itself provide “the fix” as he visualized what I was saying. So, instead, I said something like, “yes… I have a broken fan…it’s upside down on the floor and there is a bee on it that has a green hat and a brown shoe”.
The idea was also to make sure I didn't use “similar phrases” for the same utterances. So, when Zachary used “green truck” or “a fan” again, I had to come up with something else…it couldn't be something I had already said in the past... it had to be "totally new nonsense language on my part". To break the nonsense language, I wanted it to be “something totally new each and every time” he used specific words to get an order fix. Let me tell you… that was hard work… for both Zachary and me!
There were times when I saw Zachary’s need for “order” also involve an actual, physical need to “withdraw” in his own space. For example, Zachary had the video/story “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle and so, he understood the concept of a “cocoon”. As he played one day, I noticed he was physically making himself a “cocoon”, wrapping himself in a blanket as he literally said “cocoon”. I played along and said, “yes, you’re in a cocoon”. Zachary was pretending to be a butterfly. He then came out and flapped his wings like a butterfly…it was great to see him pretend like this.... I knew pretend play had always been an area of difficulty for autistic children. [Today, I have huge reservations when it comes to pretend play. I encourage all readers to read my section on "The Dangers of Pretend Play". ]
Later, I noticed, that Zachary used the word “cocoon” as an “order fix” too… almost as if he “sensed” the comfort of an enclosed cocoon. So, when he used “cocoon” that way, I’d start breaking the nonsense language again… saying, “yes, there is a caterpillar in my cocoon, and it is green with black squiggles, and it wants to come out and eat an apple”. I’d see Zachary actually “picturing the caterpillar”. I had just described and used my fingers to pretend I was the caterpillar coming out to look for an apple. Zachary thought that was absolutely hilarious and he started laughing. I always tried to make any exercise I did with Zachary fun for him too… granted that’s not always possible as he got very frustrated because I had really “hit a nerve” with what I was doing... I knew his stress and frustration at times told me I was on the right track...but, I did try very hard to keep things fun and interesting... knowing fully well, that in most cases, what I did would undoubtedly lead to frustration and stress for Zachary. But, again, that was what told me I was on the right track! If I got no response at all from Zachary, then I knew this thing with "order" was not "it" - the answer I was seeking!
In looking back now, and analyzing this in terms of how it relates to the autistic child's inability to process the whole without first understanding the parts that make up the whole, I have mixed feelings in terms of having done these exercises with Zachary as they relate specifically to language. These are expressed in the next section, called "Defined By A Negative Label... And All That Implies :o( !".
Before getting into that section, however, I want to analyze a little further what happened as I went through the above exercises with Zachary. I must say that in all the times I did this with Zachary, I had never once seen him try to "order" my "nonsense sentences". He made no "nonsense language" as it related to MY nonsense language. So, I believe he simply saw these as more "silly things mom does", but he did not obviously feel the need to "order my nonsense language", my "utterances". That told me that, at least for Zachary, something was "different" about MY nonsense language... and indeed it was. MY "nonsense language" actually WAS nonsense... HIS "nonsense language" made sense... because it was "ordering language"! As such, MY nonsense language, although funny to Zachary, were something he chose to ignore in relation to HIS "nonsense language"... he knew for a fact that my language was simply silly... yet, I, and indeed everyone else, had not been able to recognize that his perfect "ordering language" actually made sense - and that for his world to make sense, this was a CRITICAL coping mechanism! Indeed, in my ignorance, I had tried to destroy perhaps one of the most critical coping mechanisms available to the autistic child... his attempts at "breaking the code©" as that code related to communication!
Strength In Math…And Language…
Once The Code Is Broken
Not surprisingly, since the autistic child is so dependent on the "breaking of a code" to understand everything in his life, once the code is broken, he will show great strength in those areas that are very ordered and based on a building blocks approach… those things such as math and language, etc.. This is also true in terms of physical activities such as putting puzzle pieces or train parts together … two areas of intense fascination for the autistic child… two activities that make parts become “a whole” once the parts are “put together”. These activities, in and of themselves, trains and puzzles, in my opinion, also provide a coping mechanism for the autistic child in that they help to “order” the autistic child's world and to “get rid of the parts”... the sources of frustration.
Weakness in Areas Where There Is No Apparent Code To Break
It will also come as no surprise that the autistic child, by the very fact that he needs to “break the codeã” to understand his world will be very weak in areas where there is no apparent code to be broken… areas such as socialization, conversation and to some extent, process completion. The key to these areas surely will lie in “providing some kind of a code” for these activities… a list of “things” that go together, numbered activities, etc., to help the child understand the overall situation. Concrete examples of “things to say” or “things to do” will undoubtedly be necessary to gain strength in these areas. As such, role playing, in my opinion, is critical for the autistic child to understand areas such as socialization. Conversation and Process Completion, luckily, can be somewhat broken down into their “codes” or “parts” too. Conversation includes "parts of" in the form of subject information, verb information, object of the verb information, etc. Process completion involves sequencing of tasks, thus, lists or numbered activities can be used to one's advantage in teaching processes.
If you think about it, when you take the alphabet, there are certain constants there... each letter has a specific "look", a specific order in the alphabet itself (i.e., C always comes after B but before D), and, one or two specific sounds.
As Zachary sat there and watched his alphabet videos, videos that were now close to 2 years old, I remembered that 2 years ago, Zachary's absolutely favorite software program was Dr. Seuss' ABCs (By A Broderbund Company). We had paid about $14.00 for this software. Zachary could sit there and either listen to a narration that went through each letter of the alphabet, big and small (the “READ TO ME” option) or he could click on the interactive part of the program that also went through all of the alphabet, big and small (the “LET ME PLAY” option). Each letter had a little “script” that went along with it. For example, on letter “A”, it said: “Big A, little a…what begins with A? … and then it gave a lot of words that began with “a”…all of these words appeared on the screen, along with a picture of each item/word and so that Zachary could read along as well as see “what” that was - thus, the label was associated with a visual object. The “Let Me Play” option allowed Zachary to discover all kinds of fun hidden things that related to the specific letter on the screen. This was a FANTASTIC program for any child. It took about twenty minutes to get through the “Read to Me” and Zachary used to love sitting there and listening to it. Zachary could listen to it three times in a row in one sitting. He also enjoyed the “Let Me Play” option tremendously.
Zachary used to watch ("Read To Me" option on the CD) or play ("Let Me Play" option on the CD) this program over and over and over again... and he absolutely loved it. I'd say he watched that video or played the software for a good month or two. It was right around the time Zachary started to play with this software that he was confirmed to be autistic by a pediatrician.
Within a month of Zachary's confirmed diagnosis, I had a dream - a dream of "a room of colors". So powerful and vivid was this dream that when I awoke in the morning, I told my husband he had to watch Zachary... that I had to paint - and so, I recreated the room of colors I had seen in my dream. It had taken me 3 days of constant painting. A picture of Zachary's Room Of Colors is provided below as well as in the section on the Importance Of Colors In The Life Of The Autistic Child.
I believe it is absolutely critical all parents read the section I provide on the role of colors. Colors, in my opinion, are also key in triggering language/communication in autism. This had indeed been true for Zachary.
When Zachary was diagnosed with autism, he was approximately 2 1/2. At this point in his life, Zachary spoke but a few words... and I he did not know the alphabet... so I thought! The very day I completed Zachary's Room of Colors and the paint had dried, Zachary entered the room. I had gone into that room to "admire it" and make sure the paint was dry at 6:00 am. Little did I realize that Zachary had followed me in there.
Upon entering the room he went up to the "alphabet wall", touched the letter "H" and said: "AAAAACCCHHHH". He then went up to the "A" and said: "AAAAAAAAA". I was in absolute shock. I had no idea he even knew his letters... he barely said 5 words and had given absolutely no indication that he knew any letters. Indeed, like so many other children, he had lost almost all speech. At the moment this happened, you could have knocked me over with a feather... that's how absolutely unbelievable this was! Within a few days, Zachary had not only shown me he knew the entire alphabet, he also knew his numbers, his shapes and a few other things as well. Within no time, I could label anything simply by touching it and saying the "label" for that thing. I touched the carpet and said: "carpet", touched the window and said: "window". Anything I now "labeled", Zachary could repeat right away, and he knew it. One "labeling" was all it took ... and Zachary seemed to remember the "labeled object" for good! Those first true signs of Zachary understanding communication, of his understanding the alphabet and all that "labeling" had started in May of 2000.
As I watched the alphabet video on 1/20/02, another thought crossed my mind. I knew for a fact that "order" somehow played a role in many of the issues with autistic children. If autistic children had a problem with order, perhaps they needed to start with the very basics in everything... the "parts" to the "whole"... including the basics behind speech...and that meant the alphabet. I had come to understand the need for a building blocks approach to language in January of 2002. It would not be until several months later, however, that I would see this need to understand the building blocks, the "parts" to understand the "whole" actually applied to everything in the life of the autistic child. It finally all came together when I truly realized that "partiality" (a subset of order) was really the issue for these children... not "just order". Again, it now all made so much sense!
The fact that a "building blocks" approach was needed for language could certainly explain why some children had acquired language while others had not. Some had been taught language by parents who perhaps only stumbled upon the proper "order", while others had failed to do so.
If you think about it, most children acquire language by having parent first begin to "label" things for them. Labels are critical to all children in acquiring language... in making associations that "things have names"... and "things" are then seen as "parts" to other things.
There is a saying, that the whole is defined by its parts. For the autistic child, this is indeed a critical observation! Until the child can "define" the parts, he can not, in my opinion, determine the whole. Therefore, in as much as a word is made up of "parts" - letters -, it is, in my opinion, critical that the autistic child FIRST understand the concept of letters to then be able to progress to the next level in speech - labels and phonics - then the next level - actual written words - then the next level, the definition of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.), then, the next level, etc. Whereas for a normal child what come first are labels, then conversation, then the alphabet, words, etc., for the autistic child, that order is somewhat reversed. Before there can be conversation, there must first be an understanding of "where" the parts to conversation come from... hence, in the autistic child, in my opinion, the proper "order" for language acquisition is that of: the alphabet, phonics, words, words defined as sentence parts, and so on. More on the proper "order" for the autistic child is provided below. Suffice it to say for now, that the ALPHABET is FIRST in the line of things that need to be learned - the first domino that allows all others to fall into place.
Thus, the key to teaching language to the autistic, in my opinion, is simply to build from the lowest building block up IN THE CORRECT ORDER!
Although some of you will be tempted to stop reading here, having been given "the key"... keep reading... for this "key" has many grooves and each must be well understood in order to fit properly and for the lock to truly be opened. :o)
Like with many autistics, Zachary's speech had started with first echolalia and then "ordering language". But, I had not recognized these for what they were. In my eyes, Zachary's "real speech" - speech I understood - had begun with the alphabet...and then phonics... not with words or "reference communication" as would be the case for a "normal child" (as in the example of "dog" given above! Indeed, Zachary's first form of "reference communication" had been the alphabet... having finally "broken the code" of the alphabet, he now had a "reference point" in terms of these symbols and what they meant. Each reference point had a label, each letter had a name of its own... and that first point of reference provided that first critical cornerstone that lay the foundations to support all future language!
Zachary had been almost completely silent until I had painted my "room of colors". Only when he saw the "room of colors", did "what he had seen" on the computer and on TV provide the association he needed to start "uttering" letters. Again, I want to emphasize to parents that I truly believe color was also key in triggering Zachary's language and as such, I strongly encourage all parents to review my section on the importance of color in the life of the autistic child. By painting my "room of colors" I had taken these "letters" on the computer and brought them into his reality by actuality painting the letters on the wall... and painting them in various colors. The letters became "part of the wall". It was as if, all of a sudden, "he saw them"... and when he did, he started saying them, one after the other. In thinking about the inability to process the parts without first understanding the whole, you would think that the "letters" would not be perceived as "part of the wall"... that, indeed, like the "parts" to so many other things, they would cause a sense of confusion and not be understood. So, what was it that had been so different about these particular letters... why had they all of a sudden been "seen". The answer, I truly believe, lies in the fact that each letter was painted in colors. Colors, in my opinion, are truly a "pot of gold" at the end of the rainbow in the autistic child's life as they provide for him a coping mechanism... a means by which, I believe, the autistic child somehow generates his "own code" of the world in order to make sense of it. Again, this is discussed in further detail in the section on colors and as such, all parents need to take the time to read that section to understand how all this fits together.
Once the code of letters and colors was broken... and I do believe it was a 2 part code, communication could then begin... in its many forms... phonics, labels, etc. The first building block, the necessary cornerstone, the cornerstone to support the entire "structure of communication" had been laid! Not only were letters labeled, but they were now understood to be "symbols" representing something else... each letter represented a specific sound that could now be pronounced... the sounds of the alphabet itself (I am not talking about phonics here... just the actual "alphabet sounds"... as you would hear them if you just recited the alphabet). The "letter symbols" had now been "labeled" ... and Zachary was able to easily generalize that concept to "other things"... numbers, shapes, physical objects, etc.
In Zachary's "room of colors", numbers and shapes had also been painted... they were made "part of a whole", part of the wall and, again, they had been painted in colors. An important thing to note here is that Zachary ACTUALLY KNEW THE LETTERS and I didn't even know it. I had wasted a lot of time by thinking/assuming he did not have this knowledge.
If I had to do it all again - if I were a parent whose child had not yet mastered the concept of the alphabet, I would seriously consider doing colorful letter representations from the very start... and if that did not work within a week or so, I'd go back to the drawing board and look for what else was missing in the equation. Zachary also had an alphabet train video that provided the concept of parts making up a whole (train cars put together to form a train) and that provided a lot of spinning letters. Perhaps that had somehow helped too. My point here is simply to emphasize to parents not to waste time on things that just aren't working. We have a tendancy to underestimate our children because they can't communicate back to us. As I discovered, however, that does not mean that certain concepts, such as letters, aren't already known. And, as such, the key lies in "getting the child to utter what he does know". If something isn't working... don't wait months to throw it out... give new tools ONE month at most, in my opinion, and if they still aren't working, try something else or look for "what's missing" in your tool set!
I wasn't much on singing in those days... but, I could certainly see how the "alphabet song" (also on this Dr. Seuss CD) could be used to teach the alphabet since autistic children respond very well to music... and a song, in and of itself also helps with issues of the parts making up the whole since by definition, a song has a beginning, a middle and an end... and the alphabet song isn't "complete" until it is "all sung"... thus, this child's song shows how parts (i.e., letters) fit together to form a whole (the alphabet). In actuality, I don't know if Zachary "really" learned the alphabet from the song or the actual going through of the alphabet on this software package... both options were there... I was just thrilled that he finally knew it.
So, for parents having a difficult time with obtaining any speech in their children, I'd suggest trying the "alphabet song" first, then showing the child the alphabet on a poster that provided each letter in various colors ... where the child can see all the letters in the correct order at once... a "border" type poster, in my opinion, would probably be best.... just one long line with letter after letter (as opposed to a more compact poster where "you run out of room and have to go to the next line).
The key here, though, was that I had taken the letters and "made them part of a whole" - a physical wall - a new entity, and I had used colors - something I now believed to be so critical for these children. That whole could have been a song... or an alphabet border poster. But, my "whole" was a wall. If you think about it, a "wall" is an easier entity than say, a book, for an autistic child to perceive, if I am correct and their issue is one of an inability to process the partial. To the autistic child, a "book" is made up of "parts"... pages... and to the autistic child, perhaps for him to "perceive" and "understand" the "whole" when it comes to the alphabet, he needs to "see it all on one page"... just as on the wall in my room of colors. Thus, how the alphabet is taught, in my opinion, is critical. I do definitely believe colors need to be involved and that the "whole" needs to provide some continuity (such as a song, a border poster, etc.). Do I know the exact combination yet... no... but, I do believe I understand the critical pieces that need to be there... and that now, it is really a matter of parents putting these suggestions together to find the OPTIMAL method of teaching the alphabet. It may be that a combination of methods are needed... colors, songs, videos, etc. But, one thing is certain, I do believe that there is a "key" to the proper way to teach the alphabet to an autistic child and as such, this is one area that needs great study since it is truly the one key to unlock all communication!
This theory as to the fact that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to teach the alphabet to autistic children certainly would explain why some children acquire language and others don't. Some of us may use tools to teach the alphabet that show the entire thing all at once... like a poster... while others try to use books... a constant source of frustration for the autistic child who has not figured out that a whole (a book, or the alphabet) is made up of its parts. Some parents use a pen... with a single color... others use wooden puzzles with multiple colors. The fact is that there is enough variation in "how" parents try to teach the alphabet to truly explain why some children "get it" and others "don't" based on the best ways to teach the autistic child.
For Zachary, once the alphabet was learned, and each letter had been associated with a symbol and a sound (as in the alphabet song), the concept of "a label", a "symbol" representing something had now been solidified. All of a sudden, I simply had to label something once, and Zachary remembered the label... he remembered "the association" of "this label" for "that thing". I easily took the concept of a "label" "off the wall" and started to apply it to everything in life.
I am convinced that the autistic child has an inability to process partiality and as such, unless the "parts" of the "whole" are understood, the "whole" (i.e., words or utterances) can not be understood.
A "normal" child will learn that a "dog" is this funny thing with fur and a tail. That, if mom points to "a dog" and says "dog", the lesson has been learned... the label given, the association made. For a "normal child", the association is simple. But, I am of the opinion that for an autistic child, the "association" as to "what a dog is" can't be made until the "word itself - the label of dog" is first figured out. I am not saying that each label must first be understood before an association can be made. What I am saying, however, is that in the beginning, as the autistic child is just embarking on his journey to learn language, the concept of "where a label comes from" must first be understood. Once the concept of "a label" is understood... then, the child will, in my opinion, easily learn any label given. To understand where the "label" comes from, the autistic child must first understand the phonics behind the label... the sounds that make up the label. To understand the phonics behind the label, the autistic child must first understand that letters have sounds. To understand the concept that letters have sounds, the autistic child must first understand that letters are symbols that represent something... and that this "something" was the code that needed to be broken!
To say: "dog" to an autistic child who does not have an understanding of "the code" behind language (the alphabet), in my opinion, provides for him only an utterance he can't understand. This utterance...."dddddogggg"... what does that it tell the autistic brain? In my opinion, not much! There are "sounds" there, but to the autistic child, in my opinion, they are "meaningless sounds" since he has not been taught "the breakdown" of each sound, what it is, what it "says", what it "means", "how to put the sounds together", etc. But, if the child is first taught the alphabet, A, then B, then C... there is order there. Then, the child can learn "A" says "a" (as in apple), sometimes "a" (as in cake), "B" says "buh", and so on, then, there is order there, something the child can relate to... and not only is order provided but in understanding the alphabet, the code is literally broken to unlock all other aspects of communication!
I spent a great deal of time just "labeling" everything... that had its good points and its bad points. The good lay in that Zachary had the opportunity to identify "more parts of his world". The bad lay in that I was so focused on having him "talk", that I failed to see the "concept" had already been taught...the concept of labels... and so, he was ready for the next step. I did not see that until much much later. I spent a great deal of time just "labeling" when I should have been moving on to phonics!
It was fine to label as many things as possible... but once the "concept" of labels has been learned, in my opinion, the child will easily learn "all the labels" when they are uttered... and so, the focus now needed to turn to "the next step"... to not stay in the "trap" of simply labeling. It was wonderful to hear Zachary say each and every new word, but, for him, saying new words was not the issue once that "task" or "concept" was learned... the issue was to move on and show how "that part" fit into the next step in communication and the rest of the whole... to eventually move toward actual conversation. Zachary could grasp a concept very quickly... and so, it was always important to remember going forward, to "move on" and not stay fixed on one task once that task or concept had been learned (as in this case, "labeling").
It was probably close to 8 months later that I, personally, came to the realization that Zachary was able to "move on" to go to the next logical step in language... phonics. This was one of those: "If only I had seen this sooner... he could have moved on more quickly" issues for me, and I suspect many parents.
I have had parents tell me that even though their child knows his letters, schools often recommend not bothering to teach phonics until in the appropriate grade. Parents whose children are in pre-kindergarden and know the alphabet for example, may be told to wait until kingergarden or even first grade before tackling phonics. I could not disagree more. Once the autistic child has mastered the alphabet, parents need to move on as quickly as possible to phonics. Waiting for "other kids" is ridiculous. The autistic child needs to move forward as quickly as possible in those areas of strength... where the code has been broken, because unlike other children, he will be much more challenged than his peers in areas that do not have an "obvious code" - areas such as socialization and conversation.
While "normal children" are still learning the alphabet, the autistic child who has mastered it at an earlier age can then use "that time" to focus on areas of weakness instead of being bored reviewing something he already knows and more importantly, falling further behind in areas that are already more difficult. I see absolutely nothing wrong with pulling an autistic child out of class when his peers are learning concepts he already knows... and putting him in a class with younger children to work on issues with socialization, etc. Schools may not particularly like this suggestion, but, this was not a matter of what was "more convenient" for the school... it was a matter of "what was in the best interest of the child"!
I had wasted a lot of time by not "moving on to phonics" and I hope that other parents will avoid making this one mistake I very much regret in terms of how I worked with Zachary on language issues! I finally did realize my mistake, however.. and there was no "more" time to be wasted "feeling bad" about that... it was time to move on...for both Zachary and I.
With the concept of "symbols" learned... symbols for things representing letters, shapes, numbers, I then decided to focus on phonics. Note that this "next step", in our case, did not involve "pictures" or flash cards of any kind. Pictures were still only part of the "labeling"... and once that concept has been taught, the next step to language in my opinion, was phonics. Undoubtedly, in autistic children, communication can occur without an understanding of "the alphabet" first, as has been expressed by many parents who say their children can read but have no concept of the alphabet, but without that understanding, in my opinion, progress is far less effective since the "code" to communication has yet to be broken.
Systems using "words" or pictures on cards, in my opinion, are not the best way to start teaching communication to the autistic. Sure, over time, you can certainly make a child memorize that the letters c-a-t spell "cat", especially if reward systems are used and have the "association" made, however, I think it is much much more productive to go the way of the alphabet and then phonics... because for the autistic child, in my view, it is a matter of simply teaching "the concepts" behind language - of helping the child "break the code©" - and once the code is understood, the child, in my opinion, will understand all "picture/word associations" - 10 pictures or words would be no more easy or difficult than 1000 because once the "concept" was learned, the autistic child could easily generalize it to understand "all similar things"... in this case, all picture/word associations! This was what I had found to be true in my own son, Zachary. Zachary knew his alphabet, now, our focus would be phonics!
I wondered about the best way to teach Zachary phonics for about 5 minutes... and again, I think I just "stumbled" upon the best way right from the start.
So, how do you teach phonics to the autistic child? Surprisingly, for Zachary, it had been much simpler than I would ever have imagined. It had not been that hard and I did not need a lot of expensive materials to do it. It had been quite the opposite actually!
I now knew for a fact that Zachary knew his letters, so I simply took each letter and went through the alphabet saying: "A" says "ah" (as in apple), sometimes "a" (as in cake), "B" says "buh", C says "cuh" sometimes ssss (as in city). Note: I never told him the "as in" part I provide here in brackets... I JUST PROVIDED THE LETTER and the SOUND... if more than one sound existed for the letter, I would say the first sound, join it with the word "sometimes" for any additional sounds: So, for example, I'd say: A says ah, sometimes a. That's it.... nothing else... no other words, no associations (for example, "as in apple"), etc.... just the sounds for each letter....THE SOUND ONLY - THAT'S IT!
In no time, Zachary could rhyme though the entire alphabet providing me with the appropriate letter sound(s) for each letter. Below, I have provided in table format how I taught Zachary his phonics verbally.
There are a ton of materials out there to teach children phonics... and some are rather expensive. However, any person who knows how to read knows the letter sounds... and so, I provide those I used for Zachary in the tables below. Teaching the concept of "letters having sounds" was all that I wanted to do... and that, I could do without a book or fancy materials.
Below, I provide each basic letter sound for you as well as consonant blends and digraphs most often used. These provide more than enough to get any parent started with phonics. For vowels... I did not provide the "label" of short verses long until much later... I ended up trying to do that later on... although I found that once Zachary knew the sounds, it really didn't matter if he knew "this was a long a or a short a"... most adults don't even know that. :o) For those parents who do not know the difference between short and long vowels, the mystery is simple: if the letter sounds like the "letter of the alphabet"... that is the long sound for the vowel - the other is the short vowel sound! In terms of Zachary knowing the difference, this was not a "biggy" in my book as far as having to teach that right away. Teaching the label of "short" verses long could come later... after all, anything having to do with "labels" was quickly learned by Zachary, and so, I knew this would not be a huge stumbling block later on.
Basic letter sounds are as follows - remember, I would not "say out loud" anything I provide in brackets.... I said just the letter and the sound - that was all I provided for Zachary... with a "sometimes" if there was more than one sound. This was, in my opinion, key to Zachary quickly picking up the concept of phonics. Also important was to note that for Zachary, I taught phonics "by ear" not "by sight".
By that I mean that I did not use flash cards or other materials (paper, blackboards, etc.) of any type... I SOUNDED out each letter sound(s) for him. The reason I believe you have to "sound" out the phonics is because, again, flash cards, pictures, associations, etc. bring "partiality" into the situation whereas letter sounds are just that... basic sounds - so there is no "additional interference", no unnecessary distractions to the lesson being taught!
Also, keep in mind that most phonics materials out there may not teach phonics "in order of the alphabet"... taking each letter, in the order it appears in the alphabet, and providing that letter's sound(s) one at a time - in the correct order. Doing phonics the way I did them below, in alphabetical order, provided for Zachary that continuation of the part making the whole... the alphabet letters making a sound... later on, I could easily "mix them up" for him.
For parents who want to try teaching their children phonics, I encourage you to practice a little with the chart below before actually undertaking the task. You'll want to be fairly "fluid" as you start calling out the letters and their associated sounds. I learned that the "hard way" and found it confusing even for me to keep this straight before I had gone through this a couple of times... I wanted to keep the long and short vowel sounds, for example, always in the proper order... always saying the "short" sound first, and then the long sound. I knew that would later help Zachary understand the difference... that the "long sound" was always the "second one mommy said for that letter", for example.
I sounded the letter sounds out for Zachary a few times... always working my way through the ENTIRE alphabet. Since Zachary knew "of the alphabet", he understood its parts... he understood the alphabet started with "A" and ended with "Z"... and so, I wanted to provide the continuity from A to Z without stopping in the middle. In fact, if I did stop in the "middle" Zachary got upset and I had to continue until the entire alphabet had been completed. Within a day or two, I then started to ask him to tell me the sound... and he could! I would call out the letter and say, for example: "A says... " and he would complete the phrase by providing the appropriate sound... if there were more than one sound for a letter, after he said the first, I simply added "sometimes...." and he completed the phrase by saying the second sound. Soon, he could do so even when I "mixed them up"... he had learned the lesson... each letter had a specific sound(s) associated with it... that was all that mattered. Once the concept was learned, it was understood and the concept of "letters having sounds" could now be generalized to "combined letters"... or words! Once Zachary understood and knew the basic letter sounds, more sounds could then be added... in the form of short words and later basic blends and digraphs. Basic blends and digraphs are provided below. Again, I taught these sound in the same manner as shown above.
Once Zachary knew his basic letter sounds, these came easily - the concept was the same... each letter had a sound, so it was just a matter of putting the sounds together. For digraphs (like "ch", all I had to do was say: "c, h says... and say the sound"... that was all it took! The basics under this category include:
bl, br, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, tr, ch, sh, th, wh, kn
So, for all of these, I proceeded just as I had with the letters... For example, I'd say:
K N says N (as in knee)
Note: I could easily use the concept of equations to teach this same thing, but I saw a problem with that. For example, if I said:
K + N = N
Zachary would catch on to that too... but, the more I thought about that, the more I thought equations should be kept for learning math as much as possible... for me to introduce the concept of an equation here may confuse him down the road... that's still too far ahead for me... but, something I did want to mention. So, my preference was to use: KN says N.
Then there are a few more complicated sounds to learn.
Finally, certain sounds could be written in more than one way:
For example, for each of the ways in which the sound can be written, I'd say to Zachary:
ER says "er".
IR says "er".
UR says "ur".
So as to not confuse him too much, however, I introduced these on separate days, fairly far apart.
This should provide enough on "phonics" to get all parents started on the task of teaching phonics to a child.
The one thing I did forget to mention in my first book (Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism) as it relates to phonics, was that I also used a video called: Learn To Read With Phonics/Mrs. Phipps and Snoothy. One website that sells this video was http://www.videolearning.com/S0702.HTM. This company sells over 15,000 videos... the one I'm talking about is item 10-7060. This was an absolutely excellent video for teaching letters and phonics. On this video, letters were written out carefully to show the child exactly how the letter was made (upper and lower case) and each letter's sound was then clearly given. Zachary did watch this a few times, but he really got the idea behind phonics simply by my calling out the letter sounds as done above. The video was simply something I used to reinforce while I got to relax a little. This video costs $30.00. You may want to check with your local library ... or local schools. If they don't have these same products, they probably have at least something similar.
Finally, once Zachary knew these sounds for "letters", I could then move on to the next step... WORDS! Another great resource from Mrs. Phipps for this topic is:
Learn To Read: Volume 2 This video deals with soundable words, repeated vocabulary, word groups and word families. Five stories are acted out by children as Mrs. Phipps sounds out each word as it appears on the screen, reads the sentence, and then allows time for the children to read. This is item no. 01-4203 (65 min. $ 29.95).
Words were easy to teach once phonics had been mastered. I just wrote a simple word, like "cat" or "dog" and ran my finger under each letter as I put the "sounds together" for Zachary. I remember how Zachary's face totally lit up when he finally understood exactly "where words came from"... these symbols, letters bunched together or "words" that were everywhere in his world... he now understood. Another huge piece of the "language code" had been broken for him. He finally understood how it "all fit together".
After the concept of words has been taught, I worked with a few flash card sets simply to reinforce reading ability. I found at first I greatly underestimated Zachary's potential in terms of reading. I, like all parents, started out with words like cat, dog, etc. I soon realized that Zachary was capable of much much bigger words. That realization came to me when I awoke one morning to the sound of Zachary reading a label in my bedroom... a label he saw on the television... with perfect pronunciation, he read: "Panasonic". Again, it was just a matter of learning the concept... and once the "concept" was learned, he could easily generalize it to any word and moved forward quickly in terms of his ability to read.
So, from then on, I knew "big words" were ok too. As long as Zachary knew the phonics, he could pretty well make out the word. The flash card set I liked the most was made by a company called Frank Schaffer Publications. You can buy various sets of flash cards (I have 3 sets) with the word on one side and the picture on the other. The sets I have were for 1) action words (product no. FS-3214), 2) picture words (product no. FS-3205), 3) blends and digraphs (product no. FS-3210). These, in my opinion, are excellent products for the autistic child. I simply picked them up at a local school supply store. Any school supply store should be able to order these products as this is a fairly large school supply company and it is very well known. I looked for their website, but could not find it off hand. If someone does, please forward it to me and I will provide it for all parents.
With these flash card sets, Zachary greatly rejoiced whenever he could make out a word and I'd flip the card over to show him the picture. Seeing the picture for the word he read acted as "the reinforcement" to go on. I did not have to use food or anything else to get him to read once he understood the concept that letters have sounds, and when sounds are put together, they make words... and words label things. That all important label provided what he so desperately needed to begin to cope with so much in his environment... and for Zachary, "breaking the code©" provided plenty of reinforcement in and of itself!
Zachary's face showed an immense fascination when I put the "letters" and "sounds" together to "make things".... "words". It had been like seeing a little light bulb turn on when he figured out that letters have sounds, and sounds, put together make words, and words provide labels for things... and these labels help understand "everything else". I literally saw the amazement in his eyes and the joy in his face when he figured that out with the first word he read: C-A-T. That critical "connection" had once again been made!
In no time at all, almost overnight, he had developed the ability to read! In looking back, I spent a great deal of time, just labeling things. A whole new world had opened up. I was so happy that Zachary was finally "talking"... or so it seemed!
Talking In Labels and Commands ... "Reference" Communication...
The Autistic Child's Preferred Ways to Communicate!
What I failed to realize for a long time, however, was the fact that ALL of Zachary's speech now simply consisted of labels (words) and/or commands. He knew "what certain things were" and he had figured out that basic commands always produced the same outcome... commands like: "juice please", or "let's go". There were also the "yes" and "no". Because he could respond with "yes or no", I made the mistake of taking this for "conversation" for a long time. His world became one that consisted completely of labels, commands and one word answers...these I came to understand were just variations of "labels"... not actual conversation Conversation was still very much absent.
I now truly became aware of the fact that, for Zachary, "talking" was in "labels and commands". I realized that like labels, specific commands represented or "produced" very specific outcomes. "I want water", "open the door", "let's go walking", "car ride"... as did "yes" and "no" - all of these things produced very specific results... and the results were always the same. Thus, all these things, to Zachary, were no more than variations of "labels". It took no time at all for Zachary to figure out the fact that like labels, commands and "yes" or "no" always produced the same outcome... it had taken me much much longer to actually see that for Zachary, these were just extensions of "labels". Labels, commands and one word answers quickly became his "preferred" mode of communication... not only did they produce a specific result, but he could "get things" through commands and "have someone else do the work"... positive reinforcements indeed... for more than just the autistic child! :o)
Labels, commands and one word answers provided for Zachary concrete things and as such, he quickly learned to "tuck these away" for future use... what I have come to term "reference communication"! Reference communication was something we all do, but, for the autistic child, "reference communication" can become a huge tool as the child continues to "decode communication", as we will see under the language section addressing how to teach conversation and the concept of a "sentence" to the autistic child.
Reference communication, in my opinion, plays a CRITICAL role in terms of helping the autistic child understand "Safety Issues". I strongly encourage all parents to read this section, for in areas of "safety", reference communication can be a matter of life and death!
I now needed to figure out how to "get" actual conversation from Zachary. Coincidently, another factor would fall into place just at the time I needed it to.
Zachary had been on a supplement called TMG (a Kirkman Labs product) for close to two years now. Kirkman Labs specialized in products for the autistic. This particular supplement was supposed to help trigger language in autistic children, and I do suspect it did do that for Zachary - initially. I ended up running out of TMG in early July of 2002, just as we were leaving for a trip to visit relatives in Canada and, at the time, I decided that since Zachary was now on enzymes, I would no longer use the TMG and see how that went. TMG had a pretty strong dose of vitamin B in it and from parent discussions on the enzymes and autism Yahoo group, I come to see that many parents felt their children could no longer tolerate TMG and other mega-dose vitamin products once their children were on enzymes. Enzymes helped to better break down food and supplements taken in by the autistic child, and as such, fewer supplements seemed to be necessary.
To my utter amazement, within a couple of days of being off the TMG, Zachary actually started to show more conversation... more actual responding to questions using more words. I couldn't believe it and thought it was just me... until others noticed it too. I don't know if this was just a "fluke" or if there was more to this... but I do know, that for Zachary, conversation started after I took him off the TMG. I wondered as to why that could be. I had never seen any studies on long term use of TMG and the result of then "going off the supplement"... so, I really had nothing to go on... just this one observation... in my own son.
Like other parents, I suspected that the enzymes did indeed allow Zachary to absorb more of his supplements and that perhaps now, he was actually getting too much Vitamin B. I had also removed the Super Nu Thera from Zachary's supplement list, again, based on comments from other parents who stated that "mega dose" vitamins had negative effects on their children once they were placed on enzymes. I had learned enough the hard way... so when the enzymes went in... the Super Nu Thera went out... it was only a couple of months later that the TMG ran out. I had placed Zachary on a regular cfgf (casein free, gluten free) multivitamin and so the TMG had been providing an extra dose of Vitamin B he probably no longer needed once on enzymes.
Again, this was simply a theory based on what I observed in my son - but literally within days of being off TMG, Zachary started to show signs of the ability to hold a conversation... it could have been a "fluke", "a coincidence", but I had no way to know either way.
At the time of the writing of this text, Zachary has been off TMG for about 1 month and his conversation skills are truly improving. This is where we are at, but, we've made progress even in the last month and so I will share with you my ideas/thoughts in this area as well... in terms of how I am tackling the whole issue of conversation based on what I have come to understand in terms of the autistic child's inability to process the whole without first understanding the parts that make up that whole.
The challenge with conversation is that it is random... it has no order. So, how do you even begin to bring order to something that has no order? How do you break down the "parts" to a sentence, for example, so that a very young child can understand how the "parts" of a sentence "fit together" to form a sentence and that sentences are then put together to form conversation.
I had noticed for a long time that if I asked Zachary to repeat a sentence, he could repeat the first few words, but then, the rest got all "garbled" as he tried to recall and repeat it. Why was that, I wondered?
Well, if you think about this issue of language in terms of the autistic child's inability to process the partial, what I believe to be the root cause of almost all their problems, then it all starts to make perfect sense.
Letters, sounds, words... all of these, in and of themselves provide a "label" of some kind. For example, "A"... this is the letter "A"... that letter is now recognized as an entity in and of itself once it has a label specific to it and it only. The same is true for sounds and words... they provide "labels" for things and become entities in and of themselves... the "part" has now taken on a whole and so, it now becomes very very easy for the autistic child to communicate in labels because these "names" for things define specific objects... whether those objects are "wholes" or "parts" of something else... the label makes that object an entity in and of itself.
For example, the label "1/2" takes a "partial" and makes it "whole" ... the label 1/2 makes the fraction, "the part", an entity, a "whole" in and of itself... something that can stand alone and be recognized as "1/2".
If indeed the autistic child had trouble with the processing of the parts making up the whole, as I firmly believed to be the case, it made perfect sense that a "sentence" would only appear as a bunch of incomprehensible "parts".... that until the child was shown the labels to those parts and shown how the parts fit together, that conversation would not come easily.
I thought a lot about this issue... how could I make such a young child see the "parts" to a sentence? To show the "parts" to the sentence, I would have to somehow "compartmentalize" the various "parts"... to allow Zachary to see individual parts first, and then to see them come together to make a sentence. So, how do you do that?
I came up with an idea... but I must admit, for quite a while, I debated as to which step should actually come first... the labeling of words as nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc., or the physical representation of a sentence in compartments to show the "parts of the whole". I had not thought about teaching the concept of a noun, verb, etc. to a 5 year old... and so, I simply decided to go with the concept of "compartmentalizing" the sentence visually for Zachary. I knew labels were quickly grasped by Zachary and so I felt the "concept" of breaking the sentence down into its parts visually should come first, and the labels to those parts, second. Once the "parts" were "there" visually represented, I could then worry about labeling them accurately later on. Partial labels would be enough for now.
As with everything, when it came to working with Zachary, I always went with my instincts as to which way to go. I had figured out a long time ago that that "voice" within me was there for a reason... and mothers, in particular, seem to have been given a fantastic sense of instinct when it comes to caring for their children.
The reason I decided to go with visual compartmentalization before providing labels for words (such as nouns, verbs, etc.) was very much in keeping with my theory that the true problem was first and foremost one of processing the parts to the whole... and that once those parts were understood in terms of how they related to the whole, labels would, in my opinion, come easily. If my theory was correct, an autistic child would not be able to "label word types" (i.e., a noun, a verb, etc.) until he first saw how the words make up the whole... the sentence... and for the autistic child, the best way to do that, was via a visual representation and compartmentalization of "a sentence".
So, how do you put a sentence into "compartments"?
The answer was in what I call "bubble graphs". This concept was based on something I myself had learned when I was in 4th grade. I did not believe this concept was still taught in schools, but it was a fantastic way to teach the "parts" of a sentence... for any child - autistic or not!
Before we get into the concept of bubble graphs, I would like to emphasize to all parents to read my section on the importance of colors in the life of the autistic child. I do believe that colors and shapes add extra elements or "parts" to bubble graphs that further help solidify the "compartmentalization of a sentence" for the autistic child... and as such, I would encourage all parents to make use of colors and shapes if they decide to try this. Note that sentence parts should have the same color and shape. For example all information related to the subject should look the same in terms of the shape and color used. This in my opinion, helps to group that sentence part into a whole of its own... apart from the rest of the sentence.
Using The Bubble Graph Concept...
To Show How The Parts (Words) Fit Together To Form The Whole (The Sentence)
1. The train pulled into the station.
2. The long train pulled slowly into the station and was loaded.
3. The long steam train pulled slowly and carefully into the station and was loaded with logs, cars, trucks and coal.
The first sentence would be represented as follows in a bubble graph:
Oval = subject info (article, subject, adjective), square = verb info (includes verb/adverb (i.e, how), rectangle = object of the verb info or object of the preposition (depending on how technical you want to get at this stage... answers who, what, when where, why, how - here it is how in the sense of for example, pulling with something verses the "how" you would see as an adverb, such as "pulled slowly").
Before we go any further, I have provided a basic list of prepositions and conjunctions for parents as basic review. Teaching this concept to Zachary necessitated I have a basic understanding of grammar... nothing complicated... just the very basics! :o)
Prepositions And Conjunctions
Prepositions include: above, across, after, around, at, before, behind, below, beside, between, by, down, during, for, from, in, inside, into, of, off, on, out, over, through, to, under, up, with.
Conjunctions include: and, but, or
An excellent reference/workbook for parents is that of Wanda C. Phillips' "Easy Grammar" series: http://www.homeschoolbooksource.com/EasyGrammarDailyGrams.html. It provides a basic overview for grades 2/3 that goes over key grammar concepts. But, any basic grammar book will do if parents feel they need to "brush up" on grammar.
There are several key things the "bubble graph" representation does for the autistic child.
This graph takes the sentence and breaks it into pieces... its parts! Note: When I was young, all we used were "bubbles" or ovals... I varied that concept a little, because I think that a different shape for each "word type" or "sentence part" will be more useful to the autistic child, as will be the use of differing colors. Variety in shape and color, I believe, will truly help reinforce the concept. Also note that I also showed "ideas" as parts to the whole. For example, the concept of "into the station" was left together... it conveys ONE idea... one thing and answers one question: The train pulled where? Into the station. This, in my opinion, should greatly help with further sentence analysis in terms of actual labeling, etc., later on. Likewise, at this point in time, the subject information was all left into "one bubble"... the words "the" and "train" belong together. By doing this, I hope to help Zachary group ideas or concepts. I can then pull them out when it comes time to label the "types of words". For now though, in order to understand conversation, what mattered was understanding the "ideas" within the sentence.
When the time comes to label the parts, this sentence would look as shown below in 1b.
Oval = subject info (article, subject, adjective), square = verb info (includes verb/adverb (i.e, how), rectangle = object of the verb or object of the preposition info (who, what, when where, why, how - here it is how in the sense of for example, pulling with something), hexagon = preposition.
What the bubble graph concept does is it provides a means by which the child can mentally compartmentalize a sentence as it is being said... and I hope that this would help Zachary, and other autistic children to remember what has been said more easily. The concept is really quite simple and it is one you can build on as the sentence gets more and more complicated and as the child grows and learns more about grammar... about the concept of prepositions, conjunctions, phrases, etc. The key for the parent is just to start doing as much "labeling" as possible... to start with the basics and then to expand from there!
For example, let's look at sentence no. 2 using the same concept as shown above, only for a sentence slightly more difficult. Here, we've added an adjective (long), and adverb (slowly), a conjunction (and) and another verb (was loaded). In spite of the greater difficulty, however, the concept remains the same.
Oval = subject info (article, subject, adjective), square = verb info (includes verb/adverb (i.e, how), rectangle = object of the verb info (who, what, when where, why, how - here it is how in the sense of for example, pulling with something), hexagon = preposition, cross = conjunction.
So, basically, the same concept as in sentence 1... just a few more words. As far as the "and was loaded", this is where I was taught the "second verb" should go when I was a child. However, if that is too confusing for Zachary, I would not, at this point, have a problem with moving the arrows to go from "into the station" to "and was loaded" instead of in between "pulled slowly" and "was loaded". The idea is just to get Zachary to "grasp" the ideas in the sentence. To develop conversation, I just want to ensure the concept of "compartmentalization" of parts (words/phrases) to the whole (the sentence) are understood.
Expanding sentence 2 for the "labeling stage" would give us 2b as shown below (again, this only needs to be done much later... when Zachary is fully comfortable with part "a" of graphs 1, 2 and 3 - and understands the concept of compartmentalizing "ideas" very well):
Oval = subject info (article, subject, adjective), square = verb info (includes verb/adverb (i.e, how), rectangle = object of the verb info (who, what, when where, why, how - here it is how in the sense of for example, pulling with something), hexagon = preposition, cross = conjunction.
Now, each part of the sentence could be labeled for Zachary. Again, labeling, in my view will come after the concept of "ideas" within a sentence are learned. In school, most kids probably take this stuff in 2nd or 3rd grade. Since Zachary is only 5, I figure I have time. But, as I'm practicing all these graphs with him, I'm going to make sure I label for him as much as I can as we work. If I see I'm getting ahead of what he can grasp, I'll simply slow down on the "full breakout" and work with the simpler "grouped" ideas graph (the first graph for each sentence). It's really going to depend on Zachary as to how fast we go to get to the "full breakout" and "full labeling" of articles (i.e., the), nouns (i.e., train), adjectives (i.e., long), verbs (i.e., pulled), adverbs (i.e., slowly), prepositions (i.e., into), object of the verb (i.e., station... with associated adjectives, articles that go along with "station").
Now for sentence 3. Again, same concept, just a little more complicated.
Note that no matter how difficult the sentence gets, the "ideas" are grouped together, to facilitate comprehension and provide that "compartmentalization" of sentence parts the autistic child so desperately needs to process the parts to the whole.
NOTE: As I did these examples on a chalkboard and worked with Zachary, I noticed he got confused with the sentence flow... that was easily fixed by a simple arrow change... now the arrow flowed exactly with the sentence... from "into the station" to "and". Zachary easily grasped the concept of bubble graphs. He was truly fascinated by it and enthusiastically answered with the correct answer when asked: "what goes in this bubble"... so, I'm sure this concept will work great for him! I had done this sentence with Zachary the day I first introduced the concept of bubble graphs to him. As with everything, the "complexity" made no real difference because once the concept was learned, it could be applied to any sentence. I do encourage parents to start with simple sentences first, as I did however, to let the concept be understood in its easiest form first. A week later, Zachary was able to recall the entire last sentence from memory, in perfect order! Truly impressive! Thus, if I can teach him to do this for all sentences he hears... to automatically "compartmentalize them", I believe this will greatly help with his comprehension of language and his ability to actually hold a conversation and respond in "bigger sentences" than one or two word sentences as have been the case in the past. :o)
The idea for parents here is simply to experiment and do what works best for your child. The above, 3a, is better for "idea comprehension" and "sentence" comprehension in terms of "flow" than is 2a ... and "idea comprehension" is the first objective! The exact label (see 2a for proper label of that arrow) can come later once the child grasps the concept of a sentence and what it means.
Oval = subject info (article, subject, adjective), square = verb info (includes verb/adverb (i.e, how), rectangle = object of the verb info (who, what, when where, why, how - here it is how in the sense of for example, pulling with something), hexagon = preposition, cross = conjunction.
Finally, for the "full blown" labeling stage, sentence 3 would appear as shown below in 3b.
3. The long steam train pulled slowly and carefully into the station and was loaded with logs, cars, trucks and coal. Note the changes I made to the flow here. This is slightly different from the way I was taught to break a sentence down into its parts, but, I believe this works better for the autistic child... at least in the beginning. Actual proper labeling is not that big of an issue in that once the concept of "ideas being grouped" is understood (part "a" to examples 1, 2, and 3) it is much easier to "tag the label" to the idea. Autistic children strive on labels and hence "shifting them around", in my view, is not that big a deal. Once the concept and the labels are put together, it should be much easier to shift things as needed based on what seems to work best for the child.
Again, note that I have switched the arrow between "into the station" and the next verb in order to facilitate Zachary's comprehension. When parents get to exact labeling, that arrow should actually be as in 2a... but, at this stage, it is fine like this since it helps keep the ideas together and helps with sentence flow for the child just learning the concepts of language. The concept of "groups" of similar things is maintained by the shapes (i.e., all oval items refer to the subject, all square items refer to the verb, etc.).
Providing this consistency in labeling via the shapes and/or color will, in my opinion, greatly help the autistic as he moves from "idea groups" to "labeling of words within an idea".
So, to recap, I would suggest doing to "bubble graphs" with "ideas" lumped together FIRST (graphs 1a, 2a, and 3a type stuff) to help the child with "categorization" of sentence parts and then, later down the road, I would get into the full blown "labeling" (graphs 1b, 2b and 3b) of sentence parts as shown above. Note, there is nothing wrong with starting to label, subject items, verb items, etc. almost right away as long as the child is grasping the "categorization" of each group of "ideas" (i.e., the subject info, the verb info, ect.). Indeed, Zachary actually showed great interest when I actually "blew out" the bubbles for labeling purposes. The entire concept of bubble graphs fascinated him... understandably so... since before him were the keys to unlocking yet another code for language... sentence parts!
Once the "ideas" are captured, the actual exact labeling of sentence parts can really take place to move the child forward in mastering language and conversation.
As with everything, when the child is ready for the actual "labeling" of everything, in my opinion, that "labeling" of specific sentence parts needs to take on a specific order to help the child see how the "parts" (word types, such as noun, adjective, verb, adverb, etc.) fit into the "whole" (the sentence). Each word type (i.e., noun, verb, etc.) needs to be specifically defined. For example, a noun is a person, place or thing.
Providing labels to sentence parts will, in my opinion, further help the autistic child grasp the concept of language. This is a good reference for teaching language basics.
The concept of bubble graphs as shown above, in my opinion, can then be expanded specifically to teach grammar or actual word types such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. For example, for nouns, a bubble graph can be made to show "nouns" in the top bubble with that bubble having arrows to three separate bubbles below: persons, places or things. Each of those bubbles (persons, places, things) can then be made into bubbles of their own with examples of each below in yet more bubbles. For example, under a "top bubble" for "person", you could add arrows to a bubble below with the words: mother, father, sister, brother, doctor, teacher, Zachary, Jason, Anika, etc. The same could be done with "places"... with words in the lower bubble including things like: beach, park, home, school, Chicago, Arizona, work, etc. Likewise, the same concept can be used for "things".
The concept of the bubble graph, in my opinion, is a very strong tool for the autistic child in helping him to break the code to the meaning of sentences and "how they work".
For the absolute genius in labeling sentence types, here's a fun link that will surely keep any little genius from being bored!
Note that I would have a specific order here.... first the noun... then anything related to the noun... like the adjective (big, fast, etc.) or the article (the, a, etc.). I would not move on to the next "type of word" (i.e., a verb), until all types of words relating specifically to the first type (the noun) had first been identified (i.e., the adjective, the article) and their association to the first type of word, the noun, carefully shown.
Finally, the next step would be to take the same sentences you have previously used and to "move them around" to show how simply changing the order of the words can change sentence meaning as well. Again, I would use the bubble graphs to do this.
If you think of the "building blocks" approach... it is my view that language should be taught as follows to the autistic child:
1. Start with the alphabet (using songs, border type posters, etc.)
2. Show the child that letters have sounds.
Note that I did not say: Tell the child each letter has "a" sound. That would be incorrect since some letters have more than one sound. To say each letter has "a" sound would introduce confusion for the child when "another sound for that letter was taught"... and I believe that once "labeled" as "each letter has "a" sound", you may have a very difficult time undoing that label showing only "one sound association". That way, the child won't be surprised when you try to introduce more than one sound for one letter. So, the key, in my opinion, is to say: "letters have sounds"...and to say that a letter can have 1, 2 or maybe even 3 or 4 sounds.
I would work on showing the child the sound(s) for each basic letter by saying them out loud... going through the entire alphabet each time. That provides continuity for the child. In addition, it is, in my opinion, less stressful for them. To stop in the middle of the alphabet may prove stressful for a child who can not cope with partiality, what I believe to be the root of almost all problems we see in autistic children. With practice, the child will see the "label" to each letter and sound association, and as with everything, that "sound" will become an entity in and of itself and so, as time goes on, it becomes easier to go through sounds "out of order" and to mix up the alphabet. From the time I started to teach Zachary sounds, to the time I could mix the letters up took only a matter of days.
3. The next step would be to show the child that you can put letters together to make new sounds (digraphs) and that sounds can be put together to make words...and that WORDS provide LABELS for things!
4. Next, I would show the child that you can put letters/sounds together to make words. Once Zachary knew his letters and sounds, it was simple to "put them together" for him... to simply write a word and have him read it by saying: "What does that say"? or "Read that word" and putting my finger under each letter as I showed him to read the first few words. After just a few, he was off and running...
5. Next, I would provide a "visual" representation of the "parts" of the "whole"... the words that make up the sentence by use of what I call a "bubble graph" as shown in 1a, 2a and 3a.... and eventually moving on to 1b, 2b, 3b after the child has grasped the concept shown in 1a, 2a and 3a.
6. Next, I believe would come the labeling of word types within a sentence... a noun, an adjective, a verb, and adverb and so on... in a very specific order, as noted above.
Order I would suggest: article (i.e., the, a), noun, adjective, verb, adverb, object of the verb or preposition (answers who, what, when, where, why, how), phrase (idea), preposition (with, under, into etc.), conjunctions (i.e., and - words that join ideas or phrases). Show that ideas can be put together to make a sentence. Sentences are labeled as complete thoughts. Sentences can be put together to make paragraphs. Paragraphs are put together to make a story, show a lesson, provide information or for pleasure/fun. Lessons teach you facts, morals or can be just for "fun". Each one of these things would need to be labeled as its own entity for the child (i.e., the paragraph, the sentence, the lesson, etc.).
7. Change the order of the words in the sentence... the order of phrases within the sentence to show how changing order can change the meaning as well! This is something I did not do above, but, I'm sure you understand what I mean. :o)
8. The next step to actually getting to conversation, in my opinion, is to help the child "visualize the bubbles" away from the paper/board - as conversation is taking place. This can be done by using your finger and "drawing/placing/pointing to the bubbles in the air - as you speak". This provides a visual reinforcement for the child that "conversation is simply sentences with parts".
9. The final step would be in helping the child focus on the "important parts" of the sentence... to explain that "when people talk, the important stuff is usually at the beginning or the end of a sentence" and that you have to "answer" the person. To answer, would mean to answer the question, or reply to the last part of the sentence. Role playing, in my opinion, would greatly help in this area... for example, when asking a question, provide for the child the answer to.
For example, if I ask Zachary: What are you doing? If he doesn't answer, I answer for him and tell him: "say... I'm watching tv mom"... and he usually then repeats the answer for me. Much as with echolalia and "ordering language", this, in my opinion, helps him to "order" appropriate responses for future use... reference communication, as talked about earlier.
Zachary is just starting to initiate conversation... right now, he answers my questions. He is getting slowly better at using more words in his replies. I have also noticed that he is using more "statements of fact" in his conversation as opposed to labels and commands. For example, he is finally saying: I'm tired and expressing emotions/how he feels more. Since autistic children have such limited speech... and speech development is often so lengthy, it is easy to fall into the trap of "conversation" simply taking on the form of "questions" initiated by the parent/caretaker. Parents, like children, need to work at increasing the variety in terms of the types of language used... to move away from "just questions" to "exclamations, statements of fact, etc." I personally found this hard to do after having spent so much time always "questioning" Zachary.
Although I myself am just really at this stage of moving from labels and commands to actual conversation with Zachary, I find that he is quite receptive if I do the following: When he asks for something, I take it the next step by asking him for the "object of the verb"... in other words, I always try to ask him to answer the "who? what? when? where? why? or how?" behind everything he wants. When he says something, no matter what it is, I try to "tag on" one of these questions to expand on the idea. A simple: "give me that" on his part is followed by a "what do you want that for" on my part. "I want juice, please" on his part is followed by a "where are you going to drink that juice?" on my part. It is easy enough to switch the "who?, what?, when? where? why? and how?" around to create a little variety in speech... for example, I could also respond: "how do you want your juice?" or with "when do you want some juice?". Anything to help further the idea just one more step, in my opinion, will eventually go a long, long way toward helping actually get to conversation. :o) Using this concept in reading books, and pointing out the "who? what? when? where? why? how?" as the book is read should also help a great deal in making this whole concept of phrases as ideas, or parts to a sentence a lot more concrete.
Obviously, since I'm just starting to do this myself, Zachary still struggles very much with my doing this... so, I always help him along by giving him the answer and having him repeat it. This, in my opinion, does a couple of things. It helps reinforce the concept of "what is the object of the verb"... and therefore, this helps him "understand the ideas" or "parts" to the sentence and makes my paper examples of bubble graphs now become practical, concrete examples of speech. Once I can get Zachary to think this way, I think conversation will flow much more readily and that comprehension will be greatly increased (although I do believe he truly understands a lot more than I give him credit for :o) ).
The key to it all language, however, in my opinion - is labeling! The more parents label, the more the child will understand, the more he will "break the code©" and the greater his progress will be... in all areas!
In terms of teaching language, there are a few other key areas which I also wanted to address in terms of "how" I would teach them based on what I have seen in Zachary.
Teaching Synonyms, Antonyms, Homonyms, Homophones and Acronyms
To The Autistic Child...
Synonyms and Antonyms
Much like the concept of "same" and "different", the same stumbling blocks were true in teaching the concept of "synonyms and antonyms".
I know this has been another area of struggle for Zachary. I found that the key lies in "which words" I used to teach this concept. Zachary understood the concept of "equal to", so, when teaching synonyms or antonyms, or the concept of "same" verses "different", the words "equal to" or "not equal to" go much further in getting the point across than saying for example, "means the same thing as". "Means the same thing as" has no meaning to Zachary... for him, all things are "this" or "that"... so, the difficulty lies in breaking that understanding that something can only be "one thing"... that only "one word" can represent "one thing". The best way to do that is to use the words: "equal to" or "not equal to"... that makes it clear and provides the "order" he needs to understand the concept. Once he learns what words mean the same thing or which ones mean opposites, I can expand the vocabulary even further by using "equal" or "not equal". By the way, the concept of opposites works well for Zachary... so, responding to "what is the opposite of ..." would not be difficult for Zachary. Again, however, it is an "all or nothing", up verses down, open verses closed... so to teach MORE antonyms, I believe there would be greater success in EXPANDING vocabulary by perhaps switching between the use of "not equal to" and "opposite of".... in the same way that "equal" should be used along with labeling something as a "synonym". Proper labeling is critical!... and one or two word labels are best to teach concepts. As with everything, I found it critical to try to teach the "in between", the "parts" or "variations" to each concept... to use examples that show degrees of "sameness" or of "difference". Words of Quantity, thus, are another excellent tool.
The key to teaching so many concepts, I found, was simply to use "equations" to teach the concept.
For example, in teaching the concept of "same verses different"... I took pictures that looked alike, but not quite... showed gradual increases in "sameness" or in "difference"... changing "one thing at a time"... adding "one difference or sameness" at a time... and using the Word To Teach Quantity as I went along... saying for example: "This one is just a little bit different" and pointing out the difference on the picture. I labeled the difference for Zachary by verbally expressing the difference.... then, once Zachary had reached the exact same picture as the original picture, I would say: These are exactly the same... emphasizing the word, "exactly". Again, it's all in teaching the "in between" and labeling the "in between" for the child!
Homonyms are words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings. For example, a pool of water and the game of pool (played on a pool table). I've not had to do much with these yet, but I do anticipate that they will pose a problem. I am sure that the use of equations will help, but, again, using the same word to mean different things will undoubtedly cause issues for Zachary. This is simply not one I've had to really deal with so far. Perhaps in this case, pictures would be best used... with the words written below them. I have done many flash cards with Zachary. Perhaps the key here will be to teach these separately. For example, to not teach the 2 meanings for 1 word on the same day... but to actually space out the 2 definitions... providing one on one day, and perhaps the other a week or two later. I think time and pictures would be the best tools to use in teaching this concept that one word can mean many things.
For the autistic child, homonyms, in my opinion, would definitely cause confusion if taught on the same day... because for the autistic, everything needs to "make sense" and have its own label... and here, the "label" is used to mean more than one thing. Thus, the "parts" can not be defined based on a specific label alone... and as such, I believe that with that label must come something else... perhaps "a picture", or some other association in order to help solidify the concept that one word can mean many things.
Homophones are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently. An example of homophones is: to, too, two. Here we have three words that sound the same, but that mean something different. With homophones, I think that teaching these words on different days will again be key. Things that are “the same” (here the same in terms of sound) but that mean something different, in my opinion, should not be taught “together”… I just think that would introduce too much confusion for the autistic child. I believe that once these words are each taught, separately, that the autistic child’s accurate mind will simply memorize these as “different” words even though they sound the same. In this case, the parent’s tool of choice is definitely “time”… actually teaching these on different days. Again, the use of equations in the form of “two = 2” or “too = also” should help. Another example would be the use of son verses sun... again, the concept is the same, sun = something in the sky that is yellow, son = mommy and daddy's boy.
In working with Zachary, I also noticed that acronyms were a problem for him. For example, as he worked on the computer, I noticed that Zachary would always say: "hit oak" when he saw the word "OK" on any computer program. So, he couldn't read the letters to the acronym... he read the acronym as he would read any word... and with "ok"... that would be read and produce the sound of "oak".
I have only started to work this issue. In using bubble graphs as discussed in my language section, I once made use of the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as an object of the verb. Rather than writing out the entire title in the bubble graph, I simply wrote: "T.T.L.S." and pointed to each letter as I said the song title. Zachary had seen the title spelled out in the sentence and so it was easy enough for him to make the association. This was the only time I've ever really worked this issue with Zachary. I honestly don't think this concept will be that difficult a concept to teach as the use of equations (i.e., "equal to"), visual representations and actual verbalizations as to what the acronym means, together, should, in my opinion, greatly help the autistic child understand this concept.
Finally, in teaching Zachary anything, I found that some of the best coping tools I could provide were "Words To Cope" and "Words That Teach Quantity". Both of these greatly help me to reduce Zachary's stress levels when things simply became too frustrating.
If I think of anything more when it comes to language, I will add it at a later date.