Communication and Connecting are Gifts to be Celebrated!
Communication and Connecting
We are happy to bring pediatric speech and language pathologist Cherina Williams and early childhood educator Patricia E. Bailey to shed some insight into fostering communication and connecting to your child through play at every age.
We asked them to share 5 things parents would benefit from knowing about communication. Cherina also shared the 5 most asked questions she receives from parents.
Cherina and Patricia also share their favorite toys and books to help foster communication in your child. You will find these lists in the sidebars as you read through their answers on communication.
We begin with Cherina’s most frequently asked questions and her answers.
1. Will my child grow out of their language delay?
In my experience, the answer is no. I have not had many cases where a toddler with a language delay grows out of the language delay. I have observed toddlers with support from family, and an amazing care team provide support until speech and language therapy services were no longer required.
2. What should my child be doing?
Speech and language therapists expect first words at around 12 months of age, 10 words by 18 months, and 50 words and two-word phrases by 24 months. We expect our little ones to follow simple one-step directions by 12 months and two-step directions by 24 months.
3. Why is my child saying “no” when they mean “yes?”
Toddlers are amazing people. This age is so funny because they have learned that you two are not one person; therefore, it is assertion time! Not only is it time to assert themselves, but it is also time to challenge the system. So, unfortunately, “no” becomes “yes.” While it may be confusing and frustrating at times, we honestly don’t expect our toddlers to decipher between the two until around 36 months of age. If this occurs, lovingly ask, “Did you mean you did not want …” to confirm what they really wanted. Avoid the fight. They are happy to go the rounds with you. Remember…assert and challenge is the name of the game at this age.
4. Should I get speech therapy for my toddler?
Speech therapy is different from language intervention. Speech therapy is provided when sounds are not being produced or replaced with other sounds. Toddlers are learning how to use sounds that turn into words. It requires the articulators (i.e., lips, tongue, teeth, hard palate, soft palate, jaw) to work in sync like a well-oiled machine. Rather than looking at sounds, we want to look at intelligibility for this age. Intelligibility means how much do I understand when my child speaks. For example, if I cannot understand more than 50% of my 24-month-old child’s words, it may be worth a speech evaluation. This includes any speech sound errors. On the other hand, if I can understand 75% or more of what my toddler is communicating (including speech sound errors), then chances are, I need to allow time for my toddler to learn how to use sounds appropriately.
5. My child is young. Should I wait for language intervention?
No! From day one, our little ones have been learning how to understand and use language. By 12 months, we expect our little ones to put into action what they have observed. If your little one is not using language to label, call attention, protest, express wants, express needs, and ask questions, it is worth getting an evaluation by a licensed speech and language pathologist. Research and personal experience have proven time and time again that the earlier intervention starts, the sooner we can mitigate gaps in development.
We now look at the top 5 things Cherina feels parents would benefit from knowing about communication.
1. Communication is modeled by what we do with our children.
While they may learn new vocabulary and concepts from television, it does not show them how to use and practice the appropriate social language.
2. Social skills are not learned at school.
They are learned at home and practiced at school. Whatever boundaries and expectations we place on our children in the home will be acted out in school with their teachers and peers. You, as their parent, must ensure that appropriate social skills and boundaries are taught and modeled.
3.“My child does not talk” is the last thing you want your child to overhear said about them.
The things we say about our children are internalized, and they will act on it. Think about it, if you say, “good job,” chances are your child will perform better in the future. On the other hand, if you say, “my child does not speak,” your child may not put forth the effort to express their thoughts and ideas because a limitation has been placed on them – our words matter.
4. Reciting and teaching numbers, colors, and letters should not be the primary focus of language development during your precious time with your toddler.
Play time should focus on developing play reciprocity, learning, expanding play skills, sharing, and thinking. You are more likely to increase their imagination, vocabulary, theory of mind, and concept growth. And…it is simply way more fun. Numbers, colors, and letters will be the focus once they go to school.
5. Communication is a reciprocal process
Be okay with silence at times. If your little one is not super conversational, no worries. We can learn so much from observing our little ones. Nonverbal communication is just as meaningful as verbal communication. It can also gauge language gaps and create a game plan with your intervention team to help mitigate them.
Next, we look at the top 5 things Patricia thinks parents would benefit from knowing about communication.
1. Words that are important to children and make sense are learned first.
You see that with neuro-typical children: mama, dada, up, no. It’s the same for children who have communication challenges. The first communication one six-year-old girl with global delay learned was a gesture for “Go away.” A three-year-old boy with autism spoke some basic words – mom, dad, and Nick (his brother). An important phrase for him to learn was “move hand.” He had the incentive to learn it because I put my hand on his toy railway track while he played with the train.
Two powerful words are – yes and no. Yes/no allows children to communicate what they want. It may take longer for us to find out what their needs are, but we get there eventually. I’ve had a complete conversation with a non-verbal child, just using yes and no responses. Whether a nod or shake of the head, thumbs up or thumbs down, picture symbols or words, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are simple yet so empowering. The individual is in control, not others. Yes/no gives children choices. Having a choice is empowering.
We all have basic needs and being able to express them is essential. When learning new words, whether verbally or with communication systems, I made the basic words that were included the following: yes, no, mom, dad, home, bathroom, sick, tired, angry, sad, stop, help, and come. A short list that makes a big difference.
For sign language, signs and gestures that touch the body or move towards the body or midline are easier to learn. And just as with verbal language, words that are important to children and make sense are learned first.
2. Read, read, read. Exposing children to words and images in books enriches their vocabulary and comprehension and stimulates their imagination.
Before you read the book, ask children what they see. Ask them to tell a story using the pictures, even if it doesn’t make sense to you, even if the language is not clear. Then read the book with your child. Stories that have relevance to children are important, especially when they are learning to read or talk. They need to understand what’s being read to them. They need to connect with the story.
Books enrich all our lives. Even now, I’m surprised at the vastness of my vocabulary. I do crossword puzzles, and the word I need comes from far back in my past, from being a baby to being 70-year-old. Reading is a part of my life. Start reading with your children when they are young. Their vocabulary and their world expand.
3.Learn the subtle forms of communication that your child has.
Subtle forms of communication are an important part of everyday speech. A look in the eyes and a motion of the body can be powerful expressions if we pay attention. As adults, we convey our feelings non-verbally too. Children know when we’re excited, disappointed, or being secretive. Know how children show nervousness or stress. Trying to communicate with them at that time will not be successful. Wait until they are ready to listen and talk with you.
Sometimes an invitation to connect is as subtle as a glance, a gentle touch, facial expressions, and body movements. For me, this connection is powerful. Pete had autism and was in his usual quiet corner playing with Legos. He had built a house and was adding to it. As I watched a short distance away, he said, “look at the door.” Then he looked directly at my face. To me, that was an invitation to come see the door. I went over to him, and we examined the Lego house together. He was comfortable with the short comments I made. I was honored to be invited into his world. All this just from a glance.
4.Give children time to respond or speak.
Some children need our questions or comments broken down into small steps to process what you say and their responses. Others need to see the words, especially if you give them instructions. Be aware of the signals that say, “I don’t know what you’re asking.” Cognitive processing can be subtle and complex for children with autism or diverse abilities.
Ensure you have your child’s attention before asking questions or giving instructions. Once again, the subtle forms of communication are in play. One teenager I worked with would fade out when I talked too much. His eyes seemed to glaze over. That’s when I realized I had given him too much information. Sometimes I used sticky notes to simplify the question or information. Another cue that showed me that I didn’t have his attention was wringing his hands or leaving the table to go into another room. Too much information to process again. Being patient and working at his speed helped to maintain his attention and interest.
5. Literal thinking is difficult for children with ASD or learning disorders.
Literal or concrete thinking is based on what we can see, hear, feel, and experience in the here and now. It focuses on physical objects, immediate experiences, and exact interpretations. Some children are unable to understand the shifting meaning of words in changing situations. A good example is when I worked with Ricky from grades 2 to 4. Although his learning and communication were affected by the autism spectrum, it wasn’t noticeable. Processing information was the difficulty. I was able to understand his learning needs until we hit a stumbling block – literal thinking. We were working on a math skill, and I related it to the digital game Minecraft. I talked about using the blocks in Minecraft for grouping and addition. He told me that the blocks aren’t used for that. They are used just for building. After five minutes, we were at a stalemate. I realized we were thinking differently and had to listen carefully to what he was saying, “They are just used for building in the game.” Children with autism tend to hold onto their first concept of a word or phrase rather than understand the word or concept can relate to a different situation.
Jokes, idioms, and everyday expressions make no sense to some children who are literal thinkers. Hearing the words “cut it out” can be confusing. “Cut what out? I need the scissors to cut it out.” Grasping the subtlety of humor and jokes is a challenge because of the difficulty reading facial expressions as well as literal thinking.
I worked with one young man with autism since he was 15. At 25 years old, he was able to discern between what could be real and what wasn’t. He still clarified some comments with me, but he was less confused when I explained. Reviewing conversations and concepts with himself and his family was his strength. One day, hearing his brother talk about a singer, he joined in with his own joke about country music and the singer. It was humorous and on point.
Consider when your children seem to be arguing with you. Is it defiance (which is an important part of independence), or is the arguing due to literal thinking? Are they humorless, or is the joke not making sense? Understanding this will help you expand your children’s ability to understand our confusing world.
While communication is something that many can take for granted. Those who have difficulty with communication know just how wonderful it is to be understood, even if it is in the smallest way. Because being understood and being able to connect with the world is a gift that should be one all receive.
Read more ––>What is Specific Language Impairment
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This post originally appeared on our November/December 2022 Magazine