Children with Autism: Focus On The Input

This post is about how children with autism understand. This is something that most people misunderstand.

Focus on the input
Communication is one of the core areas of challenge for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Lots of students with other diagnoses have communication challenges, too. When we focus on communication problems, the easiest part to pay attention to is the student’s ability to talk.

Here are the questions: Does he talk? Is she non-verbal? What kind of communication system does he have? A picture board? A communication device?

But there is another part of the communication system that is extremely important to pay attention to. . . .understanding. The student’s ability to talk is observed quite easily. Evaluating how a student understands is more challenging.

Want to hear a powerful statistic?
Greenspan and Wieder did a review of 200 children with ASD. They found 96% of their sample of children with autism showed significant receptive language deficits. Here is what they found.

55% – No obvious understanding of simple verbal communication

41% – Intermittent ability to understand single words and follow simple directions

4% – Follow two-sequence commands, but inconsistently.

Those are powerful statistics. Almost all of these students had difficulty responding to verbal language. The students who could respond did so inconsistently.

That is not functional, dependable communication.

Here is one more thing. . .
In that research study, they found that the majority of children in their sample were stronger in visual-spatial abilities than in their auditory processing abilities. That means these children understand what they see better than what they hear.

Does that make a case for using visual strategies?
This is a critically, profoundly, significantly vital point to understand. The students had major challenges in understanding verbal communication and they were stronger in visual abilities. This is such important information. Yet how do we communicate? Primarily by talking.

As students learn and mature they can improve. But generally, people presume they understand more than they really do.

This challenge in understanding is a direct cause of other difficulties. Many of the problems they encounter as they attempt to follow life routines, handle change and transition, demonstrate appropriate behavior or participate in social opportunities exist because they don’t easily understand. The result can be frustration, anxiety, tantrums and more.

Lots of people get it backwards
They focus the majority of their effort on teaching expressive communication. I have talked to many parents and teachers who have lamented, “If only he could talk. . .”

Teaching students how to talk is an important goal, but changing our priorities may help. What impact will there be if we teach understanding first? Will helping students understand better change their ability to express themselves? I think yes.

Ask WHAT, not IF
Ask not, “Will this student benefit from using visual strategies?”

Ask, “Which visual supports will be most helpful for this student?”

The challenge is to discover how using visual tools will meet each student’s individual needs.

The tools belong to us
Visual tools are easy to use. But here is the twist. We use the visual tools to help us communicate to our students. It is our responsibility to communicate to students in a way that they will understand best. We can become more effective communicators if we use simple language and support our communication by showing them something visual to help them understand what we are talking about.

Photographs, line drawings, computer clip art, pictures from catalogs or magazines, food labels, signs, logos, objects and written language can be used as visual tools to support communication. And don’t forget that your body is a visual tool. Gestures and body language are important communication instruments.

Reception precedes expression
I had a professor many years ago who kept saying, “Reception precedes expression.” I didn’t understand it then like I do now. When students understand better they will be able to express themselves better. Strange how that works.

Now please don’t misunderstand. We still need to teach students more effective expressive communication skills. But the point is, we need to make sure there is a lot of good input before we can expect a lot of good output.

It is kind of like filling up the gas tank before the engine will run.

An important point
Sometimes people question using visual strategies for students who already talk. Traditionally, communication boards and other augmentative communication supports have been used to help non-verbal students or those with limited verbal ability to express themselves better.

The current use of visual strategies for supporting understanding has shifted that focus. The visuals help them attend to our communication, organize their thinking, remember what was said and much, much more. The important thing is to remember why we are using visual tools.

All students can benefit from the kind of support that visual strategies provide. Both verbal and non-verbal students can enjoy the benefits.

1Journal of Developmental and Learning Disorders 1:87-141 (1997)



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