Trying To Get Those Kids Talking…
There was no doubt in my mind that different children were different types of learners. Although there were many, many similarities in how children with autism appeared to view their world, there were also differences I knew I could not ignore. I was an expert on my son – but only my son. Likewise, every other parent of a child with autism knew his or her child best.
As I looked at how Zachary’s speech had progressed, there had been no question in my mind that he very much was an auditory learner. He had learned his phonics almost overnight based on sounds only – no visuals. Yet, when I discussed “learning styles” with my sister-in-law, Christine, who had a twelve-year-old boy, Andrew, diagnosed as PDD (pervasive developmental disorder – on the “autism spectrum”), she had mentioned she felt Andrew was more of a visual learner than auditory. For a few moments, I wondered why that could be. Was it because she had seen how visuals could so easily “trick Andrew”, as had the “greater than” exercise for Zachary – or was it “something else”? Could Andrew be more of a “visual learner”?
There was no doubt that it could absolutely be the case – children varied greatly in “learning styles”. Yet, so many children with autism were still “non-verbal” and the methods that appeared to be used the most with children with autism seemed to emphasize things like picture type communication, etc. If indeed “visual learning” was better for these children – why were so many – still “non-verbal”? Why were so many of these children – still in their own world? As I thought of these many children and their parents, my heart could not help but feel tremendous sorrow. Having the joy of finally hearing Zachary’s voice – and hearing it more each day – was so very, very precious to me and now, I hoped that more than ever for other children with autism and their parents.
As I thought more about Andrew and Zachary, I soon realized that science had indeed shown that the “use it or lose it” theory applied not only to muscles in the human body but to the brain as well. Thus, those parts of the brain “most used” would be in “better working order”. That certainly made sense. Ever since both Anika and Zachary had been very young, I had always made it a point to play music for them at night as they went to sleep. I usually played classical music, nature sounds (i.e., birds singing), harp or cello music. Certainly, this would have helped Zachary process “more information” in that part of his brain. Interestingly, the processing of music was co-located with the understanding of language in the temporal lobe. I could not help but wonder if doing this had allowed Zachary to “rebuild” connections that may have once been severed, and hence, helped him to rely more on sounds. I very much suspected that indeed this could be the case.
It was only after months of working with Zachary on matters of safety that he was finally started to “use his eyes” to “see” cars. As stated in my second and third books, safety had been a huge obstacle for Zachary and it was only very recently that I finally saw progress in this area of “seeing danger”.
The one thing that I knew both Zachary and Andrew had in common was their love of similar activities to keep themselves entertained. They both loved cars, trucks, trains, puzzles, and, of course, K’NEX – that toy that had all those wonderful little pieces and allowed a child to create untold variations of their masterful geometric wonders. Zachary and Andrew also loved the same computer games – especially games like Rollercoaster Tycoon. If left alone, they could spend hours playing that game. This was a software program whereby a child could build his own rollercoaster(s) and theme park and maintain or grow it much as you would a “real theme park”. Although I had come to understand that a tremendous amount of the brain was active while a child was on the computer, there was no denying that “Rollercoaster Tycoon” provided many, many “visuals” and certainly must be a program that very much activated the visual cortex.
Andrew had been playing with K’NEX and games like Rollercoaster Tycoon for quite some time now. I wondered how games such as these had contributed to the development of his brain in the visual cortex and if such activities in this child could explain why his mother considered him more a visual learner whereas I had, for the most part, considered Zachary an auditory learner. Interestingly, sight in infants was said to take up to eight months or so to reach adult-like vision and clarity. I knew that diabetes could very much rob a person of their sight and I also knew that Zachary had been born low on glucose – a clear sign of a problem with insulin. Was his sight worse than Andrew’s? I had no way of knowing, but I certainly wondered, especially given I now very much suspected diabetes and autism were also very much inter-related (see book three, Breaking The Code: Putting Pieces In Place! for more on this issue). Zachary’s vision, in terms of being able to “see words”, read, etc., seemed ok.
On so many occasions, Christine and I had talked, trying to understand what we saw in our children. We had shared difficult times, but many a laugh too. So many times, those laughs had started with a conversation regarding the “expanding” of a new concept by our children to another area of life.
As I completed this book, for example, I had started to teach Zachary about “silent letters” in speech. As I showed him words like “knee, knock, whale”, etc. and said: “silent letters are letters you see but don’t hear”, I knew he understood almost right away. He could easily tell me “the silent letter” in a word. Later that day, Anika had been watching a video that Zachary did not particularly care for and as such, he was pestering his sister to put on something different. As I tried to get Zachary to let Anika have her time of relaxation, and, from the kitchen sink said to Zachary: “Zachary can watch a video after Anika finishes watching her video”, I could not help but chuckle when I heard Zachary’s reply: “Nnnnno… that’s a silent sentence… I don’t hear it… that’s a silent video… I don’t hear it.”
Obviously, Zachary had not liked what he heard, although, in a funny way, it was music to my ears. This reply on Zachary’s part indicated proper pronoun usage, something I had worked on with him, and the understanding of a concept taught earlier that day – a concept that was now clearly being “generalized” to other aspects of life…another plus. Certainly, however, I did not want Zachary to think he could simply say things were “silent” when the utterances heard were not those he wanted to hear. That would have been a very bad message to send on my part. As such, I had to correct that “generalization” in order to prevent problems down the road.
I made sure I told Zachary that he could still “hear the video” – that it was “not silent”. I then said to him: “Tell Anika that video is not interesting and ask her to put another one on”. And so, Zachary said: “Anika, that video is not interesting… change the video”. Luckily for me, Anika had always been very, very patient with her brother and she knew that when he learned something new, it was to her advantage to help “reinforce it” also in order to help move Zachary along in understanding his world and how to live and communicate in that world. As such, she gladly put a new video on for her brother. Not surprisingly, Anika had become quite a little reader and so, picking up her latest book was always an alternative for her and one she enjoyed. I was always complimented on Anika’s love of learning. Anika had truly been a huge blessing in our lives and there was simply no denying that siblings could be a tremendous help in teaching their brother(s) or sister(s) with autism. Zachary, too, had been very, very blessed to have Anika in his life.
Anika, herself, had truly grown because of our journey with autism. She had patience and understanding beyond her years. She knew how to control her brother’s behavior when he was upset, she knew how to make him happy again, she knew what he wanted when, at times, my husband and I did not, she knew how to get Zachary to play and interact, she knew how to react and interact with him in so, so many ways. At age eleven, I could already see how she also used so many of the tricks I used to get Zachary to do what she wanted. She knew that so often these children preferred questions that had “this answer” or “that one”… and as such, she had become a master in wording things in a way she knew she would get “what she wanted” in Zachary’s answer.
For example, if Zachary was “whining” in any way because he wanted to play the computer game she was playing, Anika knew to give him a choice by saying: “Zachary… stop whining or go to bed?… which one?” Or, she could say: “Stop whining and take turns or turn the computer off?” Of course, Zachary would pick, “stop whining” and that was usually enough to make him stop the “whining” behavior. Long ago, we had all come to understand so many of “the tricks” involved in keeping Zachary under control and helping him to understand his world and indeed – himself.
The night prior to my finishing this book, for the first time ever, as we prepared Zachary for the night and brushed his teeth, he said: “Put Zachary up there… Put Zachary in the mirror”. He had wanted us to lift him onto the bathroom vanity in order that he could see himself in the mirror. As I helped him up onto the vanity and held him so that he would not fall, again, there before me was another opportunity for a lesson.
As Zachary looked at himself, I said: “Who is that in the mirror?” Zachary answered: “It’s Zachary”. “Yes, it’s Zachary”, I said, and Zachary equals… I was looking for the answer “it’s me”. “Zachary equals me” he said as he smiled at himself in the mirror. Note that I did not say: “it’s you” because I did not want to label Zachary as “you”. Zachary needed to understand that “Zachary looking at himself” equals “this is me” - not “this is you”.
Coming to understand my son had been a very long journey, but, it had been a very rewarding journey also. Each day, Zachary thrived and learned and came to understand more and more about the world around him and about himself. Granted, there were differences in how children learned. Yet, children with autism were “similar enough” in so many ways, that I wanted to share how I would go about teaching language were I “just starting” my journey with “autism”.
It was in looking at “the similarities” that I collated these materials and tried to make them so that children could learn from them no matter what their area of strength. The materials provided could be used in a way that emphasized auditory processing, visuals, motion (i.e., by using a chalkboard to write on, etc.), color, etc. and as such, I felt there could be “something” here that could be “that first domino” to finally help open up the world of so many children with autism.
In the remainder of this book, I wanted to provide for parents the “what I would have done if only I had known what I knew now” and were given the opportunity to go back in time in addressing matters of language and communication in children with autism. I was no therapist or doctor – just a mom with a few thoughts to share with other parents. There could be no guarantees that any of this would work for a particular child. Yet, based on everything I had seen in Zachary’s language development, I knew that there were certainly some insights I could provide as a mother of a child with autism that may help another family in trying to get those kids who were not communicating to start talking.
There was no doubt that cerebellum damage had been well documented in children with autism. Although many still thought of the cerebellum as a part of the brain involved pretty well only in the coordination of motion, science was now indicating that this part of the brain appeared to also be involved in the coordination of other things – like emotions, higher thoughts and language. If there was one area of hope for these children, in my opinion, it certainly had to do with the fact that the cerebellum was now known to continue to develop for over twenty years. The very part of the brain known to be so impacted in autism continued to develop for over two decades and was now known to be impacted more by environment than genetics according to the work of Dr. Jay Geidd, as described in my third book, Breaking The Code: Putting Pieces In Place!
As such, in my heart, I felt there had to be hope for so many of these children who were considered “non-verbal”. The simple fact that the brain continued to grow and change over time, in my opinion, meant there was hope of new connections being formed in the area of language where connections may have been severed in the past. If the cerebellum was most impacted by environmental factors and had to do with matters of “learned skills”, well, there was no denying that “language” was a learned skill.
From what I had seen in Zachary, I knew that children with autism could “know things” but not necessarily be able to communicate them. I certainly had seen this in Zachary, and if this had been true for him, there certainly was a possibility that it could be true for others as well. It had taken me over three years to come to a point where I finally felt I understood enough about the way in which Zachary’s brain worked to actually have an idea as to how to teach him the things he needed to understand. I knew each day, more and more parents were given the diagnosis of “autism” and felt that horrible inner death I had felt over three years ago. It certainly could be easy for a parent to slip into depression and despair upon receiving this diagnosis for their child. Yet, now, having gone through three years of autism, I knew there was a great deal of hope for these children and the most important thing for parents to do was to never lose sight of that. There were now more families than ever dealing with this disorder and there was nothing like the love of a parent to help a child escape the shackles of autism.
From the very start of our journey, I had realized there was no room for despair. To help in “saving Zachary”, I had to hit the ground running and I knew that was true for all parents who received this diagnosis for their child. It was because of this that I had wanted to share our story – in the hopes that it could help other families – other children – whose lives could all too easily be stolen by this disorder. In my opinion, to get those children back – to stop them from slipping into their own world – you had to – somehow – reach them and be able to communicate with them – if even in only the smallest way at first. It had been Zachary’s love of butterfly kisses – something so small, yet so precious – that had convinced me I had not yet lost him. From very early on, my hopes had been in those butterfly kisses – kisses I just could not bring myself to let simply fly away forever.
And so, as I had refused to give up, so too was it my hope for all parents of children with autism and hence, my need to share our story. As I looked back and thought, “if I had to do it all again” knowing what I knew now about how Zachary developed, and thought “could my experience with autism be of value for another parent”, I knew there were definitely some things I would have done or tried early on if only I had known what I knew now… and it was those things I wanted to share as they related specifically to language development.
The one thing I came to understand in Zachary was the importance of categorizing his world. For Zachary to understand his world he had to live in a “world of order” – and that meant he had to be able to categorize everything. That meant everything down to the most minute detail and in language. In the spoken language – that meant the ability to categorize sounds. As such, personally, I felt it was very important to allow these children to “focus on the mouth” as opposed to trying to force a focus on the eyes.
Again, when I considered the functions co-located in the temporal lobe, along with the “understanding of language”, functions such as categorization, memory functions, auditory processing (i.e., categorization of sounds), face recognition, etc. and the fact that boys, especially, focused on “parts to the whole”, in my view, it made perfect sense that these children would attempt to focus on the mouth in attempting to “break the code” to verbal language. As such, I would also “draw” on as many functions co-located in the temporal lobe as possible in order to help these children better understand their world – given I absolutely believed that co-located functions were much more inter-related than we may have ever imagined.
Note that “production of language” was in the frontal lobe along with motor functions, control of emotions and word associations. Yet, in order to produce “coherent language”, I had to be able to first “understand it”… and as such, “understanding”, I believed, had to come “before production” – or before – “actual coherent speech” could occur – and everything I had seen in Zachary indicated to me that “breaking the code” to the “understanding of language” necessitated “a focus on the mouth” – not on the eyes! If trying to “produce language” in a non-verbal child – why in the world would you focus on “non-verbal communication” via – the eyes – anyway. Verbal communication involved – the mouth – not the eyes!
In the written language – that meant there absolutely had to be an understanding of the alphabet. Granted, there was no doubt that physical damage to structures involved in language could be involved. However, I also very much believed that for these children to understand language, each building block to language had to be categorized and that meant even the alphabet had to somehow be categorized. To just say the alphabet or to simply say a specific letter, in my opinion, did very little for these children because that provided a sound, but basically nothing else. Certainly, there was the “visual” provided in a written letter, however, if my theory was correct and these children had little or no communication among the various parts of the brain, then visual functions located in the occipital lobe would be of very little use in understanding the spoken word or sound of a letter. As such, I felt something co-located with “auditory processing” functions – some other function located in that part of the brain involved in auditory processing – the temporal lobe – had to be more useful. Of course, to me, the obvious thing was the function of categorization.
To categorize the alphabet, in my opinion, involved not only saying the letter, but providing also an association for that “sound” for future reference. For example, if I had to teach Zachary the alphabet all over again, I would use phonics as discussed earlier in this text. I would go through each letter, saying “a says a, as in apple, sometimes a as in cake”.
As stated in my second book, when Zachary first came to understand letters, he literally went through the entire alphabet before he went to bed, saying to himself, for example, “a is for apple, b is for bed, c is for car…” – all the way through the alphabet – and often, starting over with a new word for each letter. That had absolutely amazed me – it was as though he had been “ordering” his world before bed – but now, I also knew this exercise also very much had built “letter-word associations” – and again, word associations and production of language were co-located in the frontal lobe. As such, I very much believed “word associations” were key to the actual production of language in children with autism. Note also, that this exercise made use of “categorization functions” and the understanding of language – functions co-located in the temporal lobe.
I now understood why “Sesame Street”, the Children’s Television Network program, had been such an invaluable teaching tool for these children… in this program – especially the “older ones” in my opinion - letters always seemed to be “associated” with something and “moving”. Word associations, language production and motion functions were all co-located in the frontal lobe. “Sesame Street” also often made use of “rhyming words”… another thing that, in my opinion, was also very important in these children given the importance of “auditory processing” and language comprehension functions and the fact that these were co-located in the temporal lobe. It was also because of this co-location of auditory processing and the understanding of language that I believed Zachary absolutely adored onomatopoeias.
I would also make use of colors and motions if I had to “start over” given what I now knew. I knew for a fact that Zachary absolutely loved colors. Motion functions were co-located in the frontal lobe with word associations and language production functions. Word associations, I believed, provided that critical bridge between the frontal and temporal lobes when it came “combining” language production (frontal lobe) and understanding (temporal lobe) functions. Finally, I would also use smells as much as possible. For example, in saying “a is for apple”, I would certainly provide the smell of an actual apple and cake for additional reinforcement. For “b say buh as in banana”, I would use bananas, for “c”, cupcakes or cherries, for “d”, a dandelion, for “e”, an egg, for “f” a flower, for “g” grass, etc. Certainly, there were smells that could be found to reinforce the concept of letters and phonics.
Of course, at first, I would probably just focus on word associations and the “phonics” for each letter – with as much color as possible - and, then, introduce smells and motions. Motions could be introduced by either drawing the letter, or by using body parts to show how the body could be used to “make the letter”. Colors certainly were easy enough to introduce via the use of crayons, Rainbow Stix, etc. I certainly encouraged parents to help hold the crayons and have the child draw the letters. Again, writing was something we had a very slow start with and I certainly came to regret that.
To understand “the alphabet” each letter’s “label” had to be understood as such – a label. For example, this symbol – A – had to be understood as a “label” of something called “A”. That certainly had to sound “obvious” to everyone, however, with Zachary, I had assumed he “just knew” so many of these things – and assuming he knew something was a mistake I had often made. Over and over I had seen parents of children with autism state that their children could read but had no understanding of the alphabet… and in my opinion, those first building blocks had to be understood clearly – the fact that each letter had its own label and then also the fact that each letter had its own sound(s) in order to allow the child to “break the code” to everything else in language!
Note also that when I did teach Zachary phonics, if a letter, such as the vowels, had two sounds, I introduced both of them at once in order not to confuse Zachary later on down the road… this was very much like the “many ways to make 8” concept.
I encouraged all parents to label everything for their children and to specifically point to objects and name them. Labels were, without a doubt, the one thing that I found most helpful in getting Zachary to finally communicate. I labeled everything for him – and labeling included “counting” as well as “fractions”. As Zachary progressed, it became quite obvious to me that he understood the concept of counting from very early on. I had always counted his fingers and toes as I played with him. But, what also became quite obvious was that word associations were also critical.
If I had to “go back”, in addition to working with labels, I would make use of the concept of opposites. Opposites were in fact word associations that could quite often be very easily acted out or explained. The very nature of opposites – because they were so different – in my opinion, made them one of the easiest things for a child to understand. If you thought about it, even as adults, there were always some words that just “normally” triggered others in language – and “opposites” were certainly the most obvious of those. Below was a list of opposites parents could use to begin to teach concepts and “labels” to their children.
The first list showed basic opposites only. Given my belief that these children very much needed to be provided with the “in between” situation, the second list provides examples of “in betweens” for each extreme, or “other options” that could be used in order to increase flexibility in these children and help them expand their view of the world to something more than just “this way” or “that”.
Obviously, there were many, many other opposites that could be used also.
The following website offered a list of “opposites” books for parents who were interested in that for additional reinforcement: http://www.mrsmcgowan.com/books/opposites.htm.
There were also videos that taught opposites – such as those discussed in my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost! To this day, the videos discussed in that book, especially the “Miracle of Mozart ABCs” - what I refer to as the “alphabet train video”, were among Zachary’s favorites. Of all the resources I had used for Zachary, this video, I was convinced had been absolutely key in helping Zachary to understand the alphabet! This video had lots of color, motion, music, spinning letters and showed how the parts (each letter) was included in the whole (the alphabet train) as each letter was “loaded” on a separate train car – all these things I knew to be very important to Zachary – even the spinning – and at times, even “negatives” could be used to your advantage! The “alphabet train video” – entitled Miracle Of Mozart ABCs could be purchased by going to the following website: http://www.babyscapes.com/ourvideos.html.
He just never seemed to get tired of certain videos – especially this one! The beauty of such videos was in that not only did they provide a great tool for learning – they also provided for a much needed break for parents – and that too, was absolutely golden!
I had a rather extensive library of videos for Zachary and I cautioned parents against allowing their children to watch the same one or two videos only. In my opinion, variety was absolutely necessary in this area as well as all others in life. Once in a while, however, I would put these on for Zachary “just for fun” since I knew he still enjoyed them. Excellent videos, including opposites and many others I personally used, could be found at on both the Babyscapes website and this one: http://www.small-fry.com/babfirim.html.
Certainly, there were many, many other children’s videos available. These were simply the ones I was personally familiar with. Always keep in mind that your local library or school most likely also had materials such as these that you could borrow for free. Books and videos could get expensive rather fast and as such, local libraries and schools certainly should not be forgotten as valuable resources.
In my third book, I had also stated that the computer, in my opinion, was a medical necessity for these children because unlike so many “other methods”, the computer activated almost all major parts of the brain – at once – and hence, when several parts of the brain were working at “breaking the code” at once, chances of doing so, in my opinion, were greatly enhanced. Furthermore, I very much believed that the computer was an ideal tool for helping to rebuild severed connections among the various parts of the brain because of this fact that computers could activate so much of the brain – at once!
I also found that in working with “in betweens” it was best to once again define them for Zachary. For example, in working with “hot” and “cold” opposites, to address the “in betweens”, I started by saying that some things were “not hot” and “not cold”… that they were “in the middle” and that “in the middle” of “hot” and “cold” was “warm”. This “in the middle” was a concept I used for teaching Zachary many, many things as it helped me to define the “in between” the two extremes. To teach “degrees” of something or the “in the middle” situation, I used words like:
Again, there were countless examples like these that could be used to show that there existed “in between situations”. I then provided further examples of “in betweens” by expanding “degrees” of something as follows:
Again, countless examples like this could easily be used to show “degrees” of something in order to help a child see that there was more than “just opposites” in life and that “in betweens” did exist. Whenever possible, I used motion, visuals and varying tones of voice as I showed Zachary examples of “in betweens” or “degrees of something”.
Another thing I wanted to mention, as it related to “opposites”, had to do with “negatives in opposites” as they related to anything having to do with “emotions”.
Personally, I found Zachary had in the past had a very, very difficult time dealing with “negative emotions”. Just the mention of the word “sad” was enough to cause him great distress in the past. As such, if I had to do this again, I certainly would be cautious of that and leave “negative emotions” for last and when opposites involving words like “happy” and “sad” were used, I encouraged parents to make sure they ended with “happy” or the “positives” and very much indicated they were “happy” before attempting to move on to something else. For Zachary, such a small thing had proved to be a huge issue in the past.
Also, for things involving opposites like “open” or “close”, I found that teaching Zachary fractions was invaluable. Zachary had a constant need to have things be either opened or closed, on or off, etc. Again, for him, there could not be an “in between” for a very long time – until I taught him otherwise. Teaching Zachary fractions was invaluable here as I showed him how a door could be “half open” or “one third open”, etc. The tool I used, the Fraction Stax , discussed in my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost!, was invaluable in teaching Zachary about fractions. I encouraged all parents to read this text as it provided more information on the importance of teaching fractions and provided many of the exercises I used in working with Zachary in the past.
I wanted to caution parents that in all likelihood, their children would experience frustration in doing some of these simple exercises. With Zachary, I had found that anything other than “the extremes” had been difficult to accept at first. Yet, as Zachary came to understand the concept of “in betweens” existing in life, the implications of this for his daily life in general, in my opinion, were absolutely huge as the concept of “in betweens” allowed me to move Zachary further and further away from his need for “rigidity” and “sameness” in everything. Things no longer had to be just “this way” or “that way” – they could finally be “more flexible” and as such, in my opinion, teaching children with autism “degrees of something” was absolutely critical.
Opposites were absolutely one of the easiest concepts to teach a child, but I certainly believed it was also important to quickly move away from the “extremes” in life. Opposites - by definition - were “extremes”. Thus, this could be a double-edged sword. In my opinion, opposites provided a valuable tool for parents. Children with autism were children who lived in a world of “extremes” and as such, in order to reach these children, I believed you had to do so in a manner they would not object to and that meant working with “extremes” to break through the initial shell. Parents had to learn how to take advantage of those things that could be the most frustrating in life – like the need for sameness and extremes in these children - in order to begin communicating with them, but, likewise, they had to learn to provide those “other options” too in order to move the child away from that life of extremes.
Therefore, I saw “opposites” as a potentially powerful first tool in communication, but one with potential pitfalls if used “too much”. We seemed to naturally have a tendency to live a life of “opposites”. Things were usually “this way or that”, “a yes or a no”, etc. Children with autism, however, took that natural tendency to an extreme and it was this life of extremes that had to be broken away from. The more I worked with Zachary, the clearer it became to me that in order to move him away from his life of rigidity and sameness, I had to introduce the concept of “degrees” to everything in life and thus, introduce flexibility – not constant routine! In my opinion, some routine could certainly help in a learning situation, however, the simple fact that these children liked routines only further showed me that this was exactly the problem with these children and that in order to overcome this issue, the answer, in my opinion, was not “more routine” but less of it and as such, “more flexibility” became critical in everything I did with Zachary.
I knew there were many in the field of psychology that strongly advocated “routines” for these children. Yet, in my opinion, based on everything I had seen in my son, I knew that for Zachary, sameness in everything was exactly what he did not need. Any good psychologist knew that a counseling session, when done properly, was a lot of work. It was not unusual for both patient and counselor to be completely exhausted after a counseling session. Likewise, working with Zachary was a lot of work for both him and I. If things were “too easy” – as they usually were when things were “the same” or “routine” – I knew I was not addressing Zachary’s underlying issues. If there was one thing I had learned it was that it was when things were difficult for Zachary that I knew I was “pushing the right buttons” and getting at the bottom of the problem. There was no doubt that this involved frustration for Zachary. Yet, the key was not to avoid frustration but rather to teach him how to deal with it and eventually, overcome it.
As with so much in children with autism, emotions were also very much “a matter of extremes”. This was an issue I had addressed in my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost! In Zachary, I had noticed some time ago that when he was sad, he was very, very, very sad. There was no “a little bit sad” in the past. As such, as with everything else, I had started to teach Zachary that there could be “degrees of emotions” – that a person could be a little bit happy, or happier, or very, very happy, or very, very, very, very happy. Again, I cautioned parents against “teaching emotion” by using degrees of “sad”. Negative emotions, in my opinion, were something that had to be addressed very, very carefully.
There was no doubt that depression was often found in those suffering from mental illness and children with autism were no exception to that. As such, I certainly did not want to “teach Zachary” to be “very sad” or “very, very, very sad”. Once Zachary had an understanding of “happy” and the many degrees of happy, I could slowly tackle the issue of dealing with negative emotions, but only did so, very, very slowly, always making sure that I ended on a very happy note with Zachary. In my opinion, there could be no denying that this area of “negative emotions” and teaching a child with autism how to deal with those negative emotions was an area that had the potential to do great harm if not handled very slowly and cautiously.
In my opinion, the potential for depression was absolutely there because of this issue with “extremes” in everything and as such, I knew that in working with Zachary, I had to be very careful and very attentive to his needs when it came to dealing with negative emotions. Even the smallest of negative emotions had the potential to become a very deeply felt, very negative emotion in Zachary and the implications of that, I knew, were tremendous.
I had no doubt that trivial, every day situations, for the child with autism, could become a matter of extreme emotions in no time at all – be those very positive or very negative emotions. And, as such, I knew I had to teach Zachary how to deal with life and that meant how to deal with negative emotions too. This was one area that certainly required a great deal of patience and understanding – and time – and it was an area I found myself constantly working on with Zachary. If I sensed even the slightest amount of stress or any negative emotion in Zachary, I knew it had the potential to explode into a very bad situation and as such, when such moments surfaced, I was quick to drop whatever I was doing and go comfort Zachary, by either helping him with the task presenting the difficulty (i.e., an educational software, etc.) and/or using “words to cope” as described in my second book.
“Words to cope” were small phrases I had found helped Zachary tremendously in moments of stress and frustration. The key thing here was that the “words to cope” had to be uttered by Zachary himself. Note that language production (the actual verbalization of something) and the control of emotions were co-located in the frontal lobe. As such, hearing “words to cope” , although that could draw on “word associations”, in my opinion, was not nearly as valuable as having the child utter these words – themselves! Note that auditory processing (i.e., hearing) was in the temporal lobe – not in the frontal lobe and it was in the frontal lobe that “control of emotion” functions were located – along, by the way – with the sense of self. As such, positive utterances about “myself” – literally uttered by the child – such as “I can do it”… or “I’m good at this” were also, in my opinion, critical to the control of emotion and the building of a strong concept of self.
Using “words to cope” was a simple thing to do. These simple phrases included things like: “it’s ok… just try again” or “it’s ok… just ask for help”… or “it’s ok… mommy can help Zachary”, or “you can do it…”, or “I can do it”, etc. Small phrases like these became invaluable in helping Zachary deal with his negative emotions when they did surface as well as in “building his concept of self”. Note that in children with difficulties with pronoun usage, it was, again, critical to make use of correct pronouns in using “words to cope”… such as “I can do it” being said instead of “you can do it”… although, obviously, hearing the parent reinforce the child’s concept of self was also invaluable – provided the child understood the difference between “you” and “I”. I had always used “words to cope” and it was only much later that I realized the importance of these small phrases and also, the importance of proper pronoun usage – as such, I encouraged parents to be very careful of proper pronoun usage in using these small phrases.
Negative emotions were not something I “taught” very much for obvious reasons. At most, I would teach: “This is a sad mom” or “I’m so sad”. However, I did not go into “degrees” that would bring Zachary to the very negative end of the emotion spectrum. For example, I would never “teach” something like “I’m very, very, very, very sad”. Never did I use more than “one very” to teach Zachary anything having to do with “negative emotions”. Instead, given I knew he understood all too well the concept of “sad”, whenever Zachary was “sad”, I used the opportunity to bring him from the “very sad” extreme to something more in the middle.
For example, if sad, I would tell Zachary, “let’s be happy” and work with the word “happy” – the opposite – to have Zachary make the necessary association to bring him back to a better state of mind. As I did this, I played with him with my “tickle fingers” or anything else I knew he loved to do. Control of emotions was certainly an area where favorite treats were a must. I knew the sense of smell, motor functions and word association functions were co-located in the frontal lobe along with control of emotions and as such, anything having to do with taste and/or smell, motion or word associations (i.e., using the word “happy” to overcome “sad”) usually worked quite well in helping to overcome negative emotions. Negative emotions were certainly one area in which I was very, very cautious and used “opposite positive emotions” to my advantage.
When Zachary was “sad”, I was careful not to say something like: “are you sad… don’t be sad” since I knew that would only make him focus on the word “sad” and further complicate the situation as the focus on that word – “sad” - became a self-fulfilling prophesy and made Zachary even “more sad” to the point of dropping him into the realm of extreme sadness. As such, any “sadness” was countered with a focus on the opposite emotion – happy – in order to move Zachary back into that direction. Thus, instead of saying: “don’t be sad”, the appropriate response was “let’s be happy” or “let’s do something funny” as I physically tried to do “something funny” with Zachary. Often, just using my fingers to make a “happy face” as I raised the corners of my lips and smiled worked quite well too. The idea was simply to focus on the positive opposite emotion via word associations, motions, the use of favorite colors, shapes, etc. and move away from the negative emotion!
Routines certainly provided for “sameness” not only in environment but in emotions too. As such, I was not surprised that children with autism preferred routines and appeared to respond well to them. But, again, this was a double-edged sword, as routines, in my opinion, did not address the underlying issues in these children – the issue of need for “sameness” in everything. Routines only reinforced inflexibility – and, inflexibility, in my opinion, was exactly what these children did not need more of!
Although there could certainly be difficult times, to leave Zachary in his “comfort zone”, in his world of “sameness” did absolutely nothing to address his issues and in order for me to move him past this lack of flexibility, I had learned I needed to introduce flexibility as much as possible in his life. There certainly were plenty of ways to introduce flexibility and “degrees” in life in ways that were fun. Teaching the concept of flexibility via exercises involving “big, bigger and biggest”, etc., had been one of the most “stress free” ways I had found in terms of introducing flexibility in Zachary’s life. Such exercises basically involved using the same word in only a slightly different way and for Zachary, such words had provided both “sameness” and “flexibility” all rolled into one. The words themselves were “similar enough” to reduce Zachary’s stress levels while I taught him that things could indeed change. As such, I could “ease him into flexibility” by using exercises that presented “shades of the same thing” - exercises that provided variety but with a “flare of sameness still mixed in” that provided help in controlling emotions as flexibility was learned.
Words like “big”, “bigger”, “biggest” were truly ideal. They were similar enough in sound to give Zachary that “feel of sameness” but allowed for the introduction of variety and change as well and once Zachary understood the concept that things could have various degrees, life became much simpler. It was then much easier to apply the concept of “degrees” to many, many other aspects of life.
Life was anything but routine and as such, in my view, to allow Zachary to live a life of routines and extremes only placed him in an artificial bubble that certainly would burst at some point in time and I knew that the longer that artificial bubble was allowed to exist, the worse the outcome when its pressure finally would be released and that “burst” occurred. For me, putting Zachary in an artificial bubble was not an option. The only option was to make him understand his world and as with so much, labeling everything for him – including “degrees” of something – had made a tremendous difference in his ability to cope with everyday life.
As with so much in life, achieving proper balance was always important. Yet, when a child had no understanding of his world and had tremendous difficulty in communicating, obviously, making that “first crack” in the shell was critical and in my opinion, “opposites” certainly could be useful in accomplishing that. I just cautioned parents to keep “opposites” in perspective when it came to “extremes” and the need to provide “alternatives” and “flexibility” by moving away from “opposites only” as quickly as possible.
In addition to using “opposites” in trying to reach a child with autism, numbers/counting, shapes and colors were also excellent tools to use. Each of these things provided for constants that could be used to one’s advantage in initial communication attempts. I discussed numbers, counting, shapes, colors, etc. in my previous books and as such encouraged all parents to read my previous works for more on those issues. Briefly, however, what I saw as key in these topics was the fact that these things provided for a degree of “sameness” also and as such, I was certain that had been the reason Zachary had so loved working with these things.
For example, shapes never changed. A circle was always a circle, a square always a square, a hexagon, always a hexagon. Once Zachary knew his shapes, he knew they remained fairly constant with basically only changes in size and color – but never in shape. As such, again, this brought stability to his world. Shapes were something that were easily understood. The same was true of numbers and counting. A “2” always looked the same and always had the same “number of things” associated with it – like 2 fingers, 2 spoons, etc. Counting was always pretty much the same also. The number 1 was always followed by 2, the number 2 was always followed by 3, etc. These things remained pretty much the same all the time and as such, these were things that were easy for Zachary to learn.
Yet, again, as with everything else in life, so, too, did these things have to move from the “this way” or “that way” as quickly as possible. Once Zachary knew how to count “by ones”, I moved on to counting “by twos” to show him that even math could change. I did the same thing with shapes. Once Zachary knew his basic shapes, I showed him how combining shapes could make new shapes. For example, a triangle on top of a square made a pentagon or “a house”. Two triangles joined together at the base made a diamond. Three circles on top of one another made a snowman. In everything, I always tried to make Zachary see things in a different light in order to help expand his thinking and get away from that world of “this way” or “that way” only. Once I understood the issues, it became much simpler to address them in pretty well all aspects of life.
The key to so much in teaching Zachary and helping him to control his emotions was really a matter of learning to identify those things I could use to my advantage based on his need for sameness. Without control of emotions, there could be no learning and as such, I always had to be careful to bring Zachary’s emotions back under control quickly whenever that control was lost. Again, knowing what to use to my advantage was key – opposites, shapes, counting, food, word associations, words to cope, motions, and colors – all of these were things I was able to use to help Zachary during moments of stress.
As I looked back on Zachary’s language development, there was no doubt that if I had to do it again, I would focus on word associations, including letter/sound/phonics associations for the alphabet, opposites, degrees of something, etc., first.
When Zachary had first started to talk there was no denying that labels had played a huge role in his life – as they did in the development of language in any child. For a very long time, Zachary seemed to talk only in labels. Of course, he finally learned that a label could also be used as a command. I had failed to recognize that this too could be used to my advantage.
Zachary knew labels, such as “milk” (for rice milk). He soon came to recognize that a label could be something to represent an object in and of itself but that it could also act as a command in order to “get something”. Zachary quickly learned to speak in commands and for quite some time, he spoke only in labels and commands. What I had not realized for quite some time, however, was that “degrees” of labels, “degrees of commands” and indeed, “degrees of speech” or “flexibility in speech” also had to be taught.
For Zachary, there was only one way to ask for milk, only one way to ask for rice crackers, only one way to ask for anything. I soon realized that again, herein was the problem. Zachary’s “all or nothing” extended into his speech as well. There was one way to say something and that was pretty well it. Again, he had to be taught “flexibility” in speech. I had spent a great deal of time labeling things for Zachary. He could certainly talk in labels and commands and did so for quite some time. Yet, the one thing I had longed for, conversation, had taken a very, very long time to come about.
Zachary was now at the point where he could easily answer questions with either a “yes”, “no” or short sentence. His “statements” now included up to eight words quite often. Yet, he certainly was not able to “tell me a story” for example, or tell me about his day, etc. For now, conversation was limited to small question/answer sessions. When I first worked with Zachary, trying to move him past talking in labels and commands, I had noticed that he appeared unable to remember more than a few words at a time.
If I gave Zachary a sentence and told him something like, say: “Mom, I would like to have spaghetti and rice milk for lunch today”, he simply could not do it. He was able to say the first few words, maybe two to four of them, but had extreme difficulty in repeating the sentence he had just heard. Yet, I knew Zachary had a fantastic memory. I usually had to label something only once for him and he remembered it. It was the same thing with spelling. He was a fantastic speller and I used spelling a great deal as I taught him new things. When a new label for anything was provided, I usually made sure I spelled the word for Zachary also. Thus, I found myself with a son I knew to have a fantastic memory, and yet, he had difficulty with repeating even basic sentences he had just heard less than five seconds before. I wondered if this was just a matter of short-term memory issues or working memory issues. The more I thought about this issue, however, the more I became convinced that for Zachary, that was only a problem – in some cases – but not all. If a task involved anything that could be categorized, including something he had heard in the past, he appeared to have a fantastic short-term, long-term and working memory. Thus, if only a “memory issue”, he would not have been able to remember anything, yet, clearly, he could remember labels, commands, spelling of words, etc. – all things that very much involved categorizations!
As I continued to work with Zachary, I decided to try “bubble graphs” to teach him about sentences and how to remember them. I discussed the issue of bubble graphs at great length in my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost! and had reproduced that section of my second book earlier in this text as well.
Although “bubble graphs” worked tremendously in helping Zachary to remember sentences, I later realized that “something else” was needed. This “something else” would be the focus of the rest of this text.
Basically, as explained previously, a “bubble graph” was simply a way of compartmentalizing a sentence visually. I had been taught to use bubble graphs when I was a child in fourth grade. I had modified the concept in order to adapt it specifically to Zachary and autism. As my journey with autism continued to unfold, I now came to understand that language functions were found in various parts of the brain. For example, the production of language was co-located in the frontal lobe along with word associations. Yet, the understanding of language was co-located in the temporal lobe along with categorization functions.
Given I believed co-located functions to be much more inter-related than we may have ever imagined, I believed that sentences had to be categorized in order for Zachary to understand them. Note that memory functions were also found in the temporal lobe. The production of language, however, was another issue. Production of language – or,- some of those functions involved in actually speaking - were co-located with word associations in the frontal lobe. Thus, word associations (frontal lobe function), such as opposites, in my opinion, provided a means of categorization (temporal lobe function) and hence, a bridge between the frontal and temporal lobes given that word associations, by definition, were a form of categorization – and that, I believed had to be the key to getting both language production and language comprehension to finally “work together”.
Note that the frontal lobe also included functions relating to smell and motion. The cerebellum – a part of the brain located at the back of the head just above the neck – was very much known to be affected in children with autism and this particular part of the brain was best known for the coordination of motor functions. Yet, research was beginning to indicate that the cerebellum appeared to play a role in higher thought processes, language and emotion as well – all functions also – at least to an extent – located in the frontal lobe along with language production. The physical size of the cerebellum was clearly documented to be smaller in children with autism – I now very much suspected due to mercury exposure given it was known that mercury had its most devastating effects on developing or immature cells. The cerebellum was also now known to take over twenty (20) years to mature (see Breaking The Code: Putting Pieces In Place!) and as such, this, in my opinion, certainly would make the cerebellum perhaps among the cells most susceptible to mercury damage. Yet, although I knew the cerebellum to be clearly impacted in children with autism, the fact that this part of the brain continued to develop for over twenty (20) years also offered hope for these children. Functions in the cerebellum were also very much considered “learned functions” and language certainly was a “learned function”.
Granted, language was best learned prior to age five. Yet, I simply had to believe that given the cerebellum continued to change and develop for twenty years, and the fact that people could indeed learn to communicate in a second language even after that time, given that – I felt there was still hope even for those who were much older and still non-verbal. Communication involved many forms – verbal as well as non-verbal – and since motor functions were co-located with language production, surely, even for those most devastated by autism – there had to be a chance of communicating via tools such as sign language – something that could involve both word associations (i.e., up/down) and motions – all at once.
The key to understanding “how to build sentences”, for Zachary, and I suspected many others, appeared to be the use of – categorization functions.
In order to categorize a sentence, I decided to make use of various shapes and colors – two things I knew Zachary absolutely loved. Again, the trick in teaching Zachary so many things was really to work with those things I knew he had an interest in – and that certainly included shapes and colors. That was how I had come up with my “bubble graphs”. There was absolutely no doubt that for Zachary, this had provided a critical link for issues of “language”. This had also shown me that – at least in matters that involved categorization - the issue was not one of working memory or short-term or long-term memory. Zachary had easily been able to remember the sentences as we worked on them, a few days later, a few weeks later, a few months later and several months later as well. To this day, Zachary was able to remember the sentences I had first written in my bubble graphs. Thus, clearly, for Zachary, the issue had not been one of memory.
Yet, conversation still had not flourished as I thought it should after our initial use of bubble graphs. Yes, it had improved significantly… but, somehow, I felt I was missing something. Granted, I had not used them much in the past months as I worked on other issues with Zachary in his schoolwork. I had spent the last few months following an actual “first grade program” I had purchased and it was as I had worked through these materials that I had seen so, so many issues with them. As such, in the coming year, I planned on spending more time on materials such as my bubble graphs to teach Zachary more in the area of “how language actually worked” and “how” you actually came to “build a sentence”.
As the weeks and months past and life continued, I finally came to understand “the issue” for Zachary. As he worked next to me on his computer, he now enjoyed many programs that involved second grade reading levels. Some of his software required that he “build a sentence”. Zachary had great difficulty with this. At first, he simply guessed as he clicked on words, hoping they would provide the desired answer and the sound of a “correct answer” from his computer. The program asked Zachary to make a sentence by clicking on the correct word to complete the partial sentence already provided. Several words were provided as “choices” to complete the sentence. They included nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, articles, prepositions, etc. – but no instructions!
Zachary would simply click on any word, hoping it would complete the sentence and allow him to move on. Many times, his guesses obviously allowed him to do that – but many times, obviously, they did not.
It was as Zachary worked on this computer program and experienced frustration that he started saying to me: “Mom, I need a sentence… make a sentence please”. And herein was what I now believed to be yet another key to the tremendous conversation delays in children with autism.
My “bubble graphs” had provided the sentence for Zachary – ready made. What they failed to do, however, was to show Zachary how to make a sentence. Given he needed to be shown how things worked, clearly, that had to also be true of conversation. Zachary had to understand how the parts formed the whole to conversation, too, and that meant he had to have an understanding of “how to build sentences”.
The building of sentences was something we “just assumed” happened in children as they heard conversation all about them. Yet, conversation had no pattern to it and until the parts to the whole were defined for Zachary, I was certain he would continue to have difficulty in “making a sentence”. He certainly could understand and read a sentence once it was provided – either on the written page or in the spoken word – he just had no idea as to “how to build one” from scratch! Thus, he had to use sentences he had previously heard in his life in order to have “conversation”. Until he learned that he could modify those sentences he had once heard, again, his life – even in conversation – was a matter of “this way” or “that” with no in between!
Zachary could modify previously heard sentences, but building “good and – new - sentences” from scratch was still a challenge for him.
Thus, my “bubble graphs” had provided a good first step – categorization – a function co-located with the understanding of language in the temporal lobe. But now, the next part was needed. I had to show Zachary how to make a sentence – from scratch – and show him in a manner that allowed him to see that there could be flexibility in sentence building, too!
Given there were countless ways to make a sentence, I had to come up with a system that would allow for flexibility yet would not lose the concept of “bubble graph” categorization to help with the understanding of language. And, I also knew that if I wanted “language production”, I would have to somehow make use of “word associations” too in order to bridge language production and comprehension functions located in the frontal and temporal lobes, respectively.
A challenge – yes – but, not insurmountable! So, how do you teach a five year old how to build a sentence – from scratch – with an understanding of “the parts involved”, in a manner that was not too difficult to understand and a manner that would still captivate his attention, focus and interest? Again, I knew the “bubble graph” concept would be key. Instead of providing a “ready made sentence” for Zachary, I would simply show him the parts and how to put them together to make a sentence – in a flexible and fun way.
This certainly took me back a ways… back to early grade school – and the basics of grammar. Yet, the goal was not to teach Zachary “all the grammar rules” – but rather – to simply teach him “the basics” of making a sentence in the hopes that understanding “how sentences were made” would help increase conversation skills. I did find comfort in knowing that Zachary was very much a “left brain” person – and that meant he liked “rules” to things. Certainly, that would come in quite handy in teaching language skills and all that grammar further down the road. That also meant he would have a greater focus on parts and be more analytical. The beauty of the “bubble graph” system, however, was that it had aspects to it that appealed to both sides of the brain and as such, in my opinion, it was truly the perfect tool for teaching the basics of language when it came to the building of sentences.
For those who were left-brain dominant as was Zachary – and I suspected, most boys – bubble graphs could draw on rules, “parts to the sentence”, analytical skills, auditory skills, and sequential processes. Yet, for the right brain dominant child, bubble graphs provided a method that could draw on the need for concretes, a view of “the whole” in showing how it all fit together, use of tone voice, use of motions, and visual-spatial as well as visual-motor functions.
So, what were “the basics” Zachary needed to understand in order to build a sentence and also in order to help increase conversation skills overall. I certainly was no language teacher, but, even I knew “the basics” I felt Zachary needed to understand.
At the very minimum, he had to understand the parts to a sentence: A noun, pronoun, subject, adjective, article, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition, and prepositional phrase.
He also had to understand that there were different types of sentences: Commands, exclamations, questions (and answers), and statements of fact - and that – when you thought about it – really involved putting all these different kinds of sentences together in a way that made sense. He had to understand that if asked a question, he was expected not to repeat it – but to provide an answer. I had already started to work on this issue with him on some of our walks. I would say to him, for example, “the question is… what is in that tree?”. Then, I would prompt him for the answer by defining the answer as that – “an answer” and saying: “The answer is… there’s a bird in that tree”. This way, I not only labeled “a question” and “an answer”, but also provided examples for him. I could then drop the “the answer is” part and just give him examples of “answers” to questions by saying, for example, “There’s a bird in that tree”.
We had only recently started these exercises on our walks and I knew, already, they were helping Zachary in understanding conversation. As with everything, it was so critical to label everything – to tell Zachary the “this is the question” and “this is the answer” and to define each as exactly that – a question, an answer, a statement, an exclamation, etc. This sounded complicated, but it really was not that difficult to do. In so much of what I had done with Zachary, initially, it seemed like there was “so much” involved in teaching him everything. But, once I finally figured out “how” I had to teach Zachary, there was no denying that life became much, much simpler. Granted, there was a little more “upfront” work involved, yet, the way I looked at it, I could either do that little extra upfront work or deal with ongoing frustration because that little extra upfront had not been provided. I simply resolved to do the little extra upfront work rather than have both Zachary and I experience constant frustration as I attempted to teach him new things.
Sentence parts certainly would be “a new thing” to teach Zachary – and I had to do it in a fun way that was easy enough for him to understand and taught him how to build a sentence – from scratch! First, there had to be some definition of basic terms, again, in a fun, easy to understand way.
Before getting into the specifics of exercises I made for Zachary, there were a few things I wanted to mention. First, in defining “a person”, obviously, some children would not understand terms like “mechanic” or “aunt” or “musician”, etc. As such, I encouraged all parents to make sure they defined all new words for their children. Whenever I gave Zachary a new “person word” such as this, I always defined it simply by using - equations.
For example, to define “aunt”, I told Zachary “aunt = mommy or daddy’s sister”, “grandpa = daddy’s dad or mommy’s dad”. Likewise, a “mechanic” was easily defined as “a mechanic = someone who fixes cars and trucks”, a “musician” as “a musician = someone that makes music with a piano, a guitar, a flute or other instrument”, and so on. Again, for Zachary, making use of that “equal to” was always important in helping him to understand things initially. As he caught on to the “system of definitions”, I could then easily “drop the equals” and just start defining terms normally by saying for example: “a construction worker is a person that makes houses or builds roads and things like that”. I still often used “equals” in explaining things to Zachary, but clearly, Zachary was now at a point where I could easily start moving away from that in conversation.
Although Zachary already understood the concept of “man”, “woman”, “girl” and “boy”, I knew he still had difficulties with answering questions asking: “who is that person….?” . This was why I decided to include the “Who Is That?” in my exercises. Likewise, I would use “what, when, where and how” to help define other things for Zachary in order to help him understand the parts to a sentence and how they fit together. Associating “who” with my “person definition page”, etc. was just my way of starting to help Zachary build those critical word associations to help him with “who, what, when, where, why, how”, etc. type questions in the future.
In order to show children with autism “what a person was”, I decided to use a mixture of pictures that were lifelike as well as caricatures. Zachary already understood “man”, “woman”, “girl” and “boy”, but I knew that was not the case for many children with autism. To me, providing as “lifelike” a representation as possible, at least initially, was key in accomplishing that. This was also critical in helping to reinforce “real vs non-real”. In my opinion, it was important to always distinguish that for Zachary, and I suspected, it would be for other children too – at least initially.
Note that I did not tell Zachary that a picture of a person was “a real person” – I referred to it as “a picture of a boy or girl”, etc., and emphasized that it was only a piece of paper showing what a person looked like. As such, picture of “lifelike” people were used to help solidify the concept of “boy, girl, woman and man”, but, the pictures were always identified as “just that” – pictures!
“Real people” were persons you could physically touch, for example. Granted, there could be “real people” on tv, however, you could not “touch a person” on a tv and know this to be “a person” and this, again, even though a “subtle difference” was, in my opinion, a very critical difference indeed in terms of providing that all important “reference” for Zachary – a child I very much knew to “live via references”. For a great deal more on this issue, I urged parents to read both my second and third books.
Given I had noticed and addressed this issue of “real vs non-real” or “real vs pretend” – and indeed continued to do so if I saw any hint of Zachary assimilating the two a little too much for my comfort level - Zachary now had a very good understanding of “the difference”. Although Zachary now had a good understanding of that difference, “real vs pretend” was something I always kept a very careful eye on and as such in order to prevent confusion in young children who did not have a good understanding of the difference, I wanted to provide for parents interested in trying some of these ideas something I felt would create the least amount of confusion in a child with autism.
Parents who had not read my previous works were encouraged to do so in order to understand my concerns with the issue of “pretending” and the difficulties in distinguishing between the “real and non-real” as I had seen this issue in my own son. This issue was discussed at length in both my second and third books. Both those books were posted in full, on my website.
Note also that colors and variations in shapes, and lines (i.e., dashed, solid, etc.) were also used. Again, this was simply my way of helping Zachary build associations as I worked to teach him how to make a sentence – from scratch. For Zachary, these were effective, simple ways to help build not only associations, but categories as well. By providing “hints” such as these for Zachary, I could keep sentence building “fun” and as such, greatly reduce any stress involved in learning how to build sentences.
The following pages were the actual work pages I decided to use with Zachary. I provided many practice pages as well as examples of “each part” in order to facilitate Zachary’s understanding of these “pieces” to communication. By presenting the materials in the way I did, I knew Zachary would easily see that there could be “many subjects” or “many adjectives” or “many verbs” or “many adverbs” to choose from and that he needed not be limited to a few words in his speech. I could also easily prompt him to “pick a different word” by providing ready-made lists. By allowing him to see the “flexibility” and “choice” in language, I knew that would help him to better understand and use language and help him expand his language skills.
My materials allowed me to just tell Zachary to “pick a verb” or “pick an adverb” or “pick a noun” or “pick an adjective”. By providing many of these for him to pick from, it was easy to show Zachary how easily sentences could be made and/or changed.
My suggestion to parents who wanted to use these sheets was to print them and put them in a binder. Personally, I always put my “concept sheets” in plastic covers. That way, they stayed clean and could be used over and over again as I worked with Zachary. I then made several practice sheets in order to practice the same thing using many, varied examples. Parents who did not have access to a computer at home, could obviously just learn the concept and teach it to their children without these pages because the concept was a simple one that could be used with any child. All that was really needed was a very basic understanding of grammar, a paper and pencil.
Also, I encouraged parents to “gauge” their speed in going through these materials. It was always so easy to “keep going” and try to get through everything as quickly as possible. Yet, I urged you to take the time to “slow down” and cover just one or two things each day and then review them before going on the next time.
Finally, I urged parents to pay special attention to the section on “pronouns”. Proper pronoun usage was a problem that had very much been identified in children with autism. Given I believed these children lived “via reference”, it was easy to understand why proper pronoun usage was so difficult for these children.
Pronouns changed based on who was doing the talking. As such, they were “a moving target” and one not easily understood by children with autism such as Zachary. Yet, proper pronoun usage was absolutely critical not only to proper understanding of language and proper communication, but also, in my opinion, they were absolutely critical to one’s concept of self. After all, if one did not understand who “I was” or who “you were”, how could one have a concept of self when the “I and you” seemed to be constantly changing and if the “I’s and you’s” were so mixed up, why would not the child’s concept of self be “all mixed up, too”!
It had taken me a long time to see this issue in Zachary, partly because I usually referred to him as “Zachary” when speaking to him. Yet, for years, in speaking to Zachary, I had also called him “you” in speaking to him. As such, it made perfect sense for him to think that “you” was just another word for “Zachary”. He did not realize that “you” could also be “me” and that the pronouns “I” and “you” did a “flip flop” based on who was doing the talking and who was doing the listening. As such, of all the areas of speech, proper pronoun usage was something that, in my opinion, was most critical of all, because the implications of improper pronoun usage spanned far, far beyond the inability to communicate properly. Something that perhaps seemed “so trivial” to so many, in my opinion, had an absolutely huge impact on one’s sense of self and understanding of “self”!
Obviously, once a child learned to speak, there were many “rules of grammar and language” to be learned.
My intent here was not to review these rules but rather to simply introduce Zachary to the “concept” of how language worked and to the fact that some words “went together” in speech.
I did not need to be “grammar expert”either. Quite frankly, if I did not know “where to place a word” in the sentence train, it was easy enough to simply draw another “bubble” and “join it” to the train somehow, perhaps with a new shape not already used (i.e., diamond, star, etc.). Although I had a good understanding of grammar, I, personally, was not a grammar expert and I suspected that to be true of most parents. As such, yes, there would be times I knew Zachary would “come up” with a sentence I may not be able to graph 100%, but that was ok. I would simply do my best and go on – the key was simply to group words that looked like they belonged together – and most of those, I could figure out.
There was a saying in life: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And, in my opinion, 100% accuracy in “bubble making” was “small stuff”. Yes, I wanted to do my best to be as accurate as possible, but the goal here was not to increase frustration, it was to alleviate it – and, that, was something I very much urged all parents to keep in mind.
I knew some children would probably prefer to draw the bubbles differently than I had, perhaps, preferring to draw something that looked a lot more like an actual train in terms of “layout”. Again, that was fine. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that. The key, I believed, was just to provide the understanding of “the concept” of language. So, what I was trying to say here was simply to “keep things in perspective” and to always remember not to “sweat the small stuff”. These children had plenty of challenges ahead of them without experiencing additional frustration or worse, reprimand, because they were “not making their bubbles quite right”. I always tried to remember to work with Zachary – not against him – and to understand the world as he saw it, because only then could I really help him.
As such, in everything we did, I always looked for “additional clues” in terms of how Zachary perceived the world… and I was certain there would be more as we went through language exercises this year.
My mother had a saying she used to use often: “Perfection is not of this world”. I always tried to remember that - not only for Zachary, but for myself as well.
Given Zachary thrived on “rules”, I did not expect “grammar” per se, to be difficult for Zachary. His difficulties, in my opinion, resulted from “not understanding how language worked” in the first place because it was “so random” and as such, my intent here was only to help Zachary understand how “the parts fit into the whole” in order to help him understand “how” people speak and “how to put the words together” to form speech.
I knew that these pages would greatly help Zachary expand his language skills because once he understood the “how” to how language worked, the variation in speech could then follow much more readily.
There were many, many excellent books for teaching grammar as well as many online resources providing actual exercises.
The series I, personally, planned to use for Zachary when I did get into “teaching grammar” specifically, was a series by Wanda C. Phillips entitled Easy Grammar SystemsTM. These materials provided plenty of repetition and review and provided a good summary of many “rules” also and as such, I felt they would be well accepted by Zachary once the time for “grammar rules and written language” finally did come. Materials by Wanda C. Phillips were available at www.easygrammar.com.
This year, however, my focus would be “bubble graphs” and “explaining how language worked” to Zachary. To many, my materials probably appeared a little “intensive”. I had always found that for Zachary, once he understood “the concept”, the level of difficulty mattered very little. He could read big words just as well as little words once he understood the “how to say it” in phonics. As such, I always tried to make materials I felt best explained “the concepts” in a way I knew Zachary would grasp easily enough.
The idea behind the following pages was to, at first, just allow Zachary to simply “point to” specific word types based on my request to him, in order to help me build a sentence train. Once he saw me do this a few times, I knew he would easily grasp the concept and be able to make “his own sentence trains” by picking words out of the many provided. I provided many words, many nouns, many adjectives, many verbs, many adverbs, many conjunctions, many prepositions, etc., because that way, Zachary could see he had “a choice” and that he needed not limit himself to one or a few words in speaking. By providing “all these word groups” in this manner, it allowed Zachary to again, increase his flexibility in communication by allowing him to pick from one of the many choices available – and that – was a critical key to his understanding and expanding of “speech” or - conversation!
With Zachary, looking back, I felt I had waited “too long” to get started on writing. As such, even though Zachary was making great progress, writing was still somewhat difficult for him. I suspected part of that had to do with some limb apraxia or nerve damage in his fingers.
Zachary had very weak fingers and often dropped his pencil when writing. I now knew that high doses of vitamin B6 were associated with peripheral nerve damage and I suspected that Zachary had experienced some of that as a result of having been on high doses of vitamin B6 earlier on. As such, we also did “finger exercises” to help rebuild his strength. For example, I made him “squish” a sponge ball to rebuild strength in his fingers, however, in my opinion, there was simply no denying that Zachary had some issues with “his fingers”.
It had taken me close to three years to come to understand so many issues in autism, and B6 was one of those issues I had only recently come to understand a lot more. In my opinion, there was no denying that this vitamin was critical to these children. B6 deficiency was something that had been clearly documented to either cause or magnify seizures and so, I knew Zachary certainly needed to have B6. Yet, now, I also knew “too much” certainly had its negative implications, too. There was a great deal more on the role of B6 provided in my third book, Breaking The Code: Putting Pieces In Place! This was a text I encouraged all families to read carefully.
I also encouraged parents to look at my link entitled “Teaching Tools”. On this link, I provided additional materials I created and used for teaching Zachary. This would also be where I would add any additional teaching materials in the future.
My point in discussing Zachary’s weak fingers and his issues with writing was simply to raise the issue that it was ok for the parent to do most of the writing in teaching these concepts. Certainly, I wanted Zachary to come to actually fill in his bubble graphs all by himself… and had no doubt that he could do that – to some extent. He just tired easily when it came to writing. I knew he found it very difficult. He was getting much better at it, but, certainly, it was still not something he enjoyed doing because it did require a lot of work on his part. Writing was something we now practiced quite often… I just wished I had “started earlier” in this area in terms of his communication skills. Not teaching Zachary to write sooner was one of the things I certainly had come to regret although just figuring out how to teach him to hold a pencil had taken a long time. Once he understood that, and knew to “hold the pencil on the crack” as discussed earlier in this text, things certainly had become easier.
So often, when we worked on his homework, I found Zachary knew the answers and should be able to finish a page very quickly. Yet, his difficulties with writing made it such that it took much, much longer to complete some of his homework. I knew we would overcome this issue with time and additional practice however, there was no denying that the actual writing out of an answer could be very trying at times – on both of us. Patience and understanding – words I constantly had to remember. Zachary had come so far and in the big scheme of things, this was “small stuff” and an issue I knew we would soon overcome. :o)
Again, the point to keep in mind was to teach “the concept” of language mechanics in a manner that showed there could be variation and flexibility in word choices. These specific materials were not to make Zachary a perfect writer. There was no denying that “bubble graphs” certainly encouraged him in his writing skills given he simply loved to “fill in the bubbles” and complete the entire “bubble train”.
The primary goal of these materials, however, was to increase conversation skills – not writing skills and as such, I encouraged parents to remember not to focus on the writing but on the concept of speech.
Getting “wrapped up” in proper letter formation, etc, in my opinion, would simply take away from the entire purpose of these materials. These were not “writing exercises” per se – they were exercises for building conversation skills and as such, it was the “oral” skills and the “verbalizations” via the “picking of words” that had to be the focus of the lesson – not the perfect writing of an “a” or any other letter. I knew it was very easy to “switch the focus” onto writing skills and I cautioned parents not to do that.
Personally, if I found myself “switching the focus” and placing it on “perfect letters or bubbles”, I would simply take over the writing task for Zachary. Only by doing so could I keep the focus on “how language worked”, on “conversation” and the building of oral communication skills as opposed to writing skills.
Also, if I had a special “note” or comment for parents, I indicated that at the top of the page by defining it as a “Note to parents…”. These were pages for “parent information purposes only” in order to bring to light certain issues. As such, even though there were a few “notes to parents” included, they were not materials to “go over” with a child.
Finally, given the importance of pronouns in speech and indeed, language overall, I provided a small section on pronoun usage. As parents went through all of these materials, the importance of pronouns in speech would become clearly obvious. Indeed, it was not as I actually sat down and started to make “bubble graphs” that I realized how truly important pronouns really were in language. It had been clearly documented that children with autism exhibited “pronoun confusion”. Given I firmly believed these children to “live via reference” (see book 2 and book 3 for more on this critical issue), there was no doubt in my mind that Zachary’s confusion over pronoun usage only further magnified issues with a poor concept of self as well. As such, I encouraged all parents to spend a great deal of time on proper pronoun usage, as I truly felt it was key not only to the development of language but also to the development of a stronger concept of self in children with autism. As I had stated earlier, if one had no understanding of “you, me, I”, etc., how could one possibly have an understanding of “himself” or “herself” in relation to others?
I also encouraged parents to make use of their child’s name or of the word “mommy” or “daddy” where pronouns would be used in normal speech. I had not realized that Zachary had such issues with pronoun usage until after I had read about this issue in children with autism. Most of the time, as I spoke to Zachary when he was younger, I had made use of his name instead of pronouns in order to help him understand “his name”. For example, I would say: “Zachary, put that on Zachary’s bed” instead of saying, “Zachary, put that on your bed”. Again, I very much encouraged parents to do the same thing to help ensure their child at least had an understanding of “his” or “her” name before moving on to pronouns – because pronouns, could be very, very confusing for a child with autism.
Zachary had long ago understood “his name” or “his label”. However, as I spoke to him, in the past, I had still limited my use of pronouns more than one normally would do in speech. That had not been true of others around him. Personally, I knew Zachary always seemed to have responded better when I just used “his name” – Zachary – instead of pronouns. I now understood fully why that was and it was this importance of pronouns I now hoped to help communicate to parents of other children with autism. Clearly, as Zachary’s understanding of pronouns increased, so did his speech. Of course, that made perfect sense given that it was difficult to speak if one was “confused” as to what to say in the first place. And pronoun confusion added to the confusion of speech and language, overall, if proper pronoun usage was not understood. It was indeed truly very, very difficult to speak without the use of pronouns. They were absolutely critical to speech and as such, it was absolutely critical they be understood.
I had been fortunate enough to understand that for Zachary to understand “his name” necessitated he understand that was “his label”. This was something we had been able to do rather early on and I had for a long time used “Zachary” instead of pronouns when referring to him. As I saw his understanding of language increase, I came to speak “more normally” thinking he would understand now since he understood so much better. Well, clearly, that was a mistake on my part and a mistake I was certain many other parents of children with autism had made. Zachary understood his name or “his label”, but he did not understand that there were other things that could take the place of his name or the place of other persons or things in language – something called pronouns – and he absolutely did not understand “how they worked”.
As my speech became more “normal” as I thought Zachary understood – key word being “thought” he understood – I began to use more and more pronouns with Zachary… and it was only after the damage had been done that I realized he too suffered from “pronoun confusion”. His understanding of you, me, I, etc., was completely “mixed up”.
I soon realized why that was. Pronouns “flip flopped” based on who was doing the talking and who was doing the listening. Thus, unlike normal labels, they were “a moving target” so to speak – and as such, given I knew Zachary to live “via references” – these “moving targets” - if not understood – in my opinion, had implications that spanned far, far beyond “just speech” and extended well into the realm of the building or destroying of the “concept of self”.
In talking to Zachary, for so long, I had now used the pronoun “you” in addressing him or asking him questions. As such, it was no surprise that he thought “you” was simply another label for “Zachary”… he was close… but, he did not understand that “you” was not “pegged” to Zachary… it was what I came to call a “flipping pronoun”… because that was a concept he could understand. “Flipping” something was a concept that could be taught in a fairly concrete manner by showing Zachary the two sides to one thing. I could take a piece of paper, a CD, almost anything and show him how to “flip it” to the other side. As such, it was easy enough for Zachary to understand the concept of “flipping pronouns” – especially given I also used my hands to show him “the flipping” of pronouns as we spoke and practiced simple sentences like: “I love you and you love me”.
This simple phrase was an excellent one for teaching the three most critical pronouns we use in speech – I, you and me – three pronouns also very, very critical to the formation of the concept of self.
As we took turns saying this simple sentence, I would make sure I put my hand on my chest as I said: “I” and as I was saying the word “love”, my hand would be migrating to Zachary’s chest so that by the time I said “you”, my hand was on Zachary… leaving it there until I said “and you” and then moving it back to “me” so that it rested on my chest by the time I said “me”.
The key to this exercise, however, was to then have Zachary do the same thing – where he now assumed the role of “I” and “me” and I became the “you”. To show Zachary the “flipping pronouns”, I absolutely had to do this step, otherwise, Zachary could very well think he was just “you” and that was his “other label” – the very message I did NOT want to give him.
Whenever we did “flipping pronoun games”, both persons had to take their turns in assuming the “I” and “me” role as well as the “you” role… all the while reinforcing that these were “flipping pronouns” by saying those very words. I would literally tell him: “You, me and I are flipping pronouns… they change based on whose talking”.
There were many, many ways during the day that I could work on pronouns with Zachary. As he played, like any other parent, I often found myself asking him to do something. For example, I might say: “Zachary, please turn the tv off”, or, if he was doing something I did not want him to do, like spinning, I would say: “Zachary, stop spinning”. If he failed to listen right away, I would then say: “Zachary, what did I say?”.
Notice here… the last sentence was the critical one… “Zachary, what did I say?”. Before we started to work on pronouns, almost without a doubt he would answer something like: “I said stop spinning”. Note again, this was not the proper pronoun to use. Because “I” was doing the talking and labeled myself as “I”, he thought that this was the “label” to replace “mommy”. As such, if he responded this way: “I said stop spinning”… I would answer “not quite right… use flipping pronouns…and say… mommy, you said, stop spinning”. So, I would practice these simple exercises over and over with him until he started to get it on his own… whenever I asked him to do something and he failed to do it… I came back at him with a “what did I say” and made sure he responded “You said….” and not “I said…”. I also usually added the rule at the end of the dialogue and stated: “When Zachary is talking, Zachary equals I or me and mommy equals you…. But, when mommy is talking, mommy equals I or me and Zachary equals you… you, me and I are flipping pronouns…”.
As tiring as it could be at times to ensure proper pronoun usage, I encouraged parents to always correct improper pronoun usage in their children, because, as I stated earlier, in my opinion, the implications of improper pronoun usage spanned far, far beyond “just language” and could very well extend into the realm of the building or destroying of the child’s concept of self – and “the self” in the child with autism was something that was very, very easily lost in the shuffle of “labels”.
With a little practice, this was much easier than it seemed – and Zachary was finally “getting it”.
Given the importance of pronouns, this was the first topic I would cover in the next section – a section providing very practical exercises – as I do them – with Zachary. Just as there were many pieces to Zachary’s new K’NEX game and each piece had to fit in place perfectly to make the whole work properly, so too was it with the understanding of language.
I was my hope that these following pages could be of use to other parents in helping children with autism understand how the “parts” fit into the “whole” - in language - and how the child - the “I” - fit into the whole picture as well in order to help as many children as possible emerge from their shell to reveal the precious pearl hiding within. :o)
See Appendix For Actual Exercises On Building Sentences
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