I often picture the famous Peanuts comic strip adult speech when I’m trying to communicate with my son. I know what I’m talking about, but all he seems to hear is WAH, wah, WAH . . . He’s now a teen, and over the years we as parents have ripped our hair out trying to find the best ways to communicate with him. He’s bright and, overall, talks just fine. But communication is a two-way deal; the recipient has to understand what you’re saying. When I ask my son to do something specific or do a few tasks in a row, things get complicated in a hurry. He struggles to comprehend most instructions and doesn’t accomplish them well. Some may say he’s a typical teen, but there’s more to it. Ask any parent who’s tried to communicate with children with autism.
In order for my husband and I to even remotely have a chance at getting our son to understand a process or task, we have to make it visual and break things down into single steps. We can talk until we’re “blue in the face,” but we won’t get anywhere unless we show him a picture or, better yet, demonstrate the task in person–as many times as it takes. Tell him a list of things to do? Nope. You have to write it down or talk about one or two steps at a time.
Sound familiar? I’ll bet we’re not alone. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but some of our ideas might help you and your child. Better yet, we’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Until then, here’s how we’ve limped along:
Visual task strips and labels. During the elementary school years, teachers at school had software programs to create visual task strip reminders for home and school needs. These were very helpful, and we displayed them in strategic spots throughout the house. Some examples include: how to get dressed, how to get ready for bed, what to do if you don’t know what to do, etc.
I also made some of my own pictures for tasks to be completed around the house. It was easy. I snapped a few pictures of my son doing the steps of an actual task. He loved being the star of his own task chart. I also labeled contents of his drawers by taking a picture of one of his shirts, one of his pants, and so on. I laminated each one, attached sticky-back velcro, and put one on each drawer front. Then he could put away his own laundry and make an effort to get himself dressed in the morning. (Fashion sense still eludes him.)
Step-by-step task lists. Now that he’s older and deeply offended if I make picture charts for him, I have detailed to-do charts for his morning and night routines. I printed and laminated them so he can cross off each task as it’s done. He also has an after-school routine chart, which includes jobs. I’ve also done another chart version which shows the chores in the first column of a table format with the days of the week in the other columns. He checks them each day. I’d share it here, but the format is now out of whack for some reason. On the cleaning or homework chores, I have him come to me for inspection as he completes each one. Otherwise, he does minimal, sloppy work, though I’ve done each task with him tons of times. I need to write steps for each job. Add that to my task list!
He’s supposed to turn in the completed chart each Saturday to his dad for “payday.” But he rarely remembers to do this. A few times we’ve reminded him and then paid. Now we figure it’s his problem if he doesn’t remember. There’s a note at the bottom of the chart that reminds him he can get paid for his efforts. We really want him to learn to be his own best advocate and to follow through on things. So if he wants to get paid and be recognized for his work, he needs to make the effort to turn in his completed task list.
Visual timer. We love this thing! I used to use it a ton when our son was younger. I still use it for my piano students so I don’t go too long on their lessons. Again, the key is to communicate visually how much time your child has for a task or when they need to leave to go somewhere. The red decreases as the time expires. So the question, “When do we . . .” is much easier to answer with a visual timer (affiliate link*) nearby.
One or Two Steps at a Time. I alluded to this earlier, but it’s so important. Especially when I have to give my son oral instructions for executive funcitioning tasks, I can only do one or two steps at a time. Then when he’s done with them, he’s ready for one or two more. It depends on the complexity of the task. A lot of times I have to be ultraspecific: it’s in the pantry, top shelf, on the left, big red box. (Yes, you’re nodding your head in total recognition of our ritual.) Ironically (or typically), I don’t have to give any instructions for operating the electronic devices in our house. I’ll bet you can relate. 🙂
I could go to the huge effort of labeling everything in our house to show where items belong and how to do things, but that would drive me nuts. So I pick my battles. I label what really needs to be done on a regular basis. With everything else, I just have to take a deep breath and explain how it’s done. Sometimes I tell him step by step. But I’m learning to provide the first step, then ask, “What should you do next?”
The whole instructional process seems to take forever at first, but I have to let my son do things for himself. If not, I’m teaching him to be dependent on me or his dad, and that’s a far greater disability than being on the autism spectrum. He’s higher-functioning, and he can do it. I want him to experience the self-satisfaction that comes from learning and doing skills on his own or with little assistance. Communicating with children with autism is a process that takes time, but your child is worth it. Take the time.
What do you do to communicate with your child? What are your expectations for them?