Communication seems to be one of the hardest thing one person on the autism spectrum has to overcome. What could be a solution for autism communication then?
All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing. – Phillip Roth
The famous and brilliantly insightful novelist Phillip Roth wrote a short story called ‘Goodbye Columbus’ in 1959, that went on to win the prestigious ‘National Book Award For Fiction’ and I’m sure a nice new publishing contract to boot!
In the story, a young boy named Neil pairs off with the effervescent ‘Brenda’ who is both persistent and demanding. In one scene, Brenda decides Neil should be a runner, much to his initial displeasure. He can’t run, he maintains over and over, which is dutifully ignored. After being shown how to run, he takes to it and devotedly practices day after day, until he’s, well, a runner! And he loves it! It’s a brief scene in a larger plotline, but we think there’s something pretty revealing and profound about the exchange.
How ‘wrong’ can we be…
Sometimes we make assumptions about people, and even ourselves. We underestimate the possibilities, aptitudes and talents of others, we reduce our goals, and along with them, our hopes. We get people wrong all the time, as Roth captures beautifully,
‘You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion…’
A dazzling illusion. How wrong could we be? Let’s get our eyes fixed!
Give our child a real chance!
As is so often the case, we ‘can’t’ because we’ve never truly been given the opportunity to know how. You can’t expect a person to triumph over a task, if they’ve never been given the right tools in the first place!
The key is, knowing what tools are required. People very often make assumptions about children on the spectrum, what they will and will not achieve, what they can and can’t do, all of this before they’re even out of diapers!
We’re quick to judge and make assessments of people, and it couldn’t be more damaging than when misapplied to a child on the spectrum.
You see, verbal communication can be difficult for children with autism, but that doesn’t mean they don’t or can’t communicate. In the same way Brenda found opportunities and pathways for Neil to learn that he could in fact run, we have to find opportunities and pathways to help our kids know they can communicate. Communicate in a way that speaks to their impressive visual skill-set. Thankfully, Lori Frost and Dr. Andrew Bondy from the Delaware Autistic Program agreed.
In 1984 the ‘Picture Exchange Communication System’ (PECS) was developed for people with little or no communication abilities, allowing them instead to communicate using pictures. The goal was to develop a process that encouraged children on the spectrum to initiate a fast, functional communication system, beginning with the exchanging of simple pictorial icons and then rapidly building up sentence structure.
A child may be encouraged to approach somebody with a picture denoting a need, such as an image of a glass of water for thirst, which can be responded by the recipient. The system created room for autistic children to communicate a request, a thought, or any idea that can be symbolised in pictorial form. The picture cards may display prompts such as ‘I Want’ and present a bevy of options from water to jacket, to shopping mall.
A child with low verbal skills now has an entire world of communication opened up to them! And to think, we only had to change the approach and be more visual! Talk about opening our eyes.
Children on the spectrum have innate skill sets, often visual, that can be harnessed beautifully for teaching, diverging from traditional, archaic pedagogical methods. We all learn differently, so why do we teach our kids the exact same way? Let’s empower ourselves, and our children to learn more than we could ever dream. Our kids are remarkable- let’s not underestimate their capabilities. And although Neil couldn’t see that he could do it, precocious Brenda could.
And I for one would like to be the Brenda in my child’s life.