Child: “He doesn’t talk.”
Me: “I know, it’s OK. I’ll talk to him.”
Child: “But really, he doesn’t talk.”
I’ve had this conversation with a child more times than I care to count. Here’s the background. I’m standing in a classroom or other facility similar. I am here to observe and make suggestions about a child who is primarily nonverbal. I am interacting with that child and talking to him when another student comes up and starts the above conversation. It always sticks with me because it makes me realize that when people don’t talk verbally, as a society we tend to think they can’t understand what we are saying and we stop talking to them. This means that a student who is already isolated by not being able to communicate effectively with others expressively, now is often surrounded by silence and people don’t interact with him or her. This message is pretty elemental when it’s preschoolers and kindergarteners essentially saying to me that since their classmate doesn’t talk, I shouldn’t be talking to him/her.
Just because he can’t talk, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand.
There is good research that supports the fact that when a person is nonverbal, people talk to him or her less than when a person is verbal. There is also research to suggest that when the person has a way to effectively communicate (whether with speech, pictures, speech generating device or other means), people talk to them more. The less people talk to you, the less you learn and the less opportunity you have for communication. Obviously this makes a bad situation worse.
So, how do we help these students participate in the classroom? These are my top 5 things I want to share with teachers (and families) new to working with students who are not verbally proficient. There are many more, I’m sure, so, share your suggestions in the comments!
- Talk to them like you would a typical kid. Include him (or her) in conversations with other students.
- Ask them questions that they can respond to nonverbally like yes/no if they can answer that or pointing to a picture. If they can’t discriminate pictures, give them one picture and ask them the question that just involves answering by gesturing to that one picture.
- Talk to your other students to remind them that just because he or she can’t talk, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk to him or her. If you set the example of doing it, it won’t be hard for them to remember this lesson. There are some books at the end of this post that were suggested by Facebook fans to read with other students about students who are nonverbal.
- Remember that the student can most likely still understand you, even though he or she can’t talk. So, be careful about talking about him in front of him. Think about whether you would say the same things around a typical child or not. Even if you think he can’t understand, he will understand more than you expect.
- Give him a role in your classroom that he can do without talking. For instance, instead of being the calendar helper in a kindergarten, he could be the pointer for the activity. Think about your daily schedule and try to come up with at least 1 way that this student can participate in each activity in an active manner. What can he do besides sit and listen?
Most important, give him or her a way to communicate. I’ll focus on some of these ways in future posts, but I thought I would offer up a freebie to get you started as a resource for families and teachers. Below is a small set of reinforcer visuals (some overlap with the token systems from a few weeks ago) that are things a student might highly desire to request. These visuals are offered as a sample of picture/symbols students who are nonverbal can use to make requests. Requests are typically the most powerful function of communication and where we start teaching . These can be used as part of a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), but it is important to note that PECS refers to the system of stages and teaching strategy for communication, not the pictures themselves. These would be great for teaching requesting highly reinforcing items for younger and older students. For more school-based requests, you may want to download my freebie at my Teachers Pay Teachers store for Art Visuals for Autism: Choices. The Music Visuals for Autism: Choices are available there as well for $1 (I only charge for them due to copyright requirements). So grab the freebie and enjoy.
And I’m linking up with Freebie Friday at The Teaching Blog Addict. Click the link below to get more freebies!