NOTE: BOOK 4 IS AN ENTIRE BOOK ON LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN AUTISM AND INCLUDES A REPRODUCTION OF THIS SECTION AS WELL AS MUCH... MUCH MORE! IF LANGUAGE/PROPER COMMUNICATION IS AN ISSUE FOR YOUR CHILD - BOOK 4 IS A MUST READ!
Book 2 Topics Here Include: Teaching Language Based On A Building Blocks Approach... Breaking The Code! Fascination With Captions... Echolalia And Ordering or Reference Language© (Once Called "Nonsense Language), ABCs To Breaking The Code Of Language The Alphabet/Phonics/Words, Talking In Labels And Commands/Reference Communication©, Conversation, Sentence Compartmentalization, Teaching Synonyms, Antonyms, Homonyms, Homophones And Acronyms, Words To Cope/Words That Teach Quantity
It is a lengthy section but well worth the read given language is such a very huge issue for the autistic!
As a watched an alphabet video with Zachary on 1/20/02, and I saw each letter flash across the screen, I thought to myself, hum..."Zachary knows his letters and indeed can read a bunch of words, yet, he is still absolutely fascinated by the alphabet and counting videos". I thought to myself that surely over time, these alphabet and counting videos would lose their appeal, but, they had not ... not after two years of watching them. As I watched Zachary, he still enjoyed these videos so much. What made the alphabet and counting so intriguing? It took me a very long time to figure it out. After a few months, the answer finally came... PARTIALITY! The alphabet and counting provided building blocks on which so much of "the whole" in life were formed. They were the "lowest" levels of language and mathematics... the lowest common denominators to so much more in life.
The more I pondered this puzzle of language and the autistic child, the more all the pieces fell into place. From this point on, I will be discussing "language" specifically, although this concept was equally applicable to teaching mathematics, or any other subject... the concept was always the same... teaching things based on a "building blocks approach" from the very lowest level up.
As I continued to ponder the question of language acquisition in the autistic child, I started to really observe everything as it related to language. I knew Zachary's problem somehow had to do with "order"... so, I thought of the alphabet as it related to order and specifically, to the "parts of a whole". Now things began to make sense when it came to the acquisition of language in the autistic child.
Just what exactly "was" the "acquisition of language" or of "communication skills"... it was the "breaking of a code". And that was the key to it all... the alphabet was at the core of communication... autistic children saw this code everywhere... and until they could "break the code", their world would continue to be one marked by great frustration.
Due to the importance of this one page, I decided to repeat it here as it related to the acquisition of language.
Perhaps the best way for parents to think of everything presented in my materials as it related to the need to understand "the parts" before "the whole" could be understood, was to think of all these issues in terms of the autistic child's need to "break the code".
By this, I meant that in order to understand almost everything in his world, the autistic child first had to understand how every aspect of every part fit into the "whole". This was true in everything from language to emotions, socialization to process completion, sensory (visual, auditory, touch, etc.) input processing to issues with potty training. All these things - be they behavioral, social, emotional, or sensory - first had to be broken into their respective "parts" for the whole to be understood.
Thus, for the autistic child life consisted entirely of "breaking the code" or breaking things down to their lowest level. Once each part was understood, the whole could then be "put back together" and understood for what it was. Until that happened, everything in the autistic child's mind would be perceived as:
A when it should be perceived as B
The key, therefore was in helping the autistic child "break the code" to get from A to B... and again, this is true in absolutely all areas of life for the autistic child! :o)
There were many things that the “attempt to break the code” could explain in terms of language. Perhaps one of the most concrete and simple to understand, however, was that of the autistic child’s fascination with captions/credits at the end of a movie.
Fascination With Captions... And "Breaking The Code"...
The autistic child’s absolute fascination with movie captions/credits could easily be explained by my theory that the autistic child needed to first understand the "parts" before he could comprehend "the whole".
Letters were the first building block to understanding language. Time and time again, however, parents had stated that their children could communicate but still did not understand the concept of language, specifically, of the alphabet. Communication, they said could, occur through the use of PEC (Picture Exchange Communication) or other means, even without understanding the alphabet. Well, that was certainly true. However, not understanding the "concept of letters" yet, did not mean that the child was still not constantly striving to "break the code".
So, if you think about captions, several issues could now be addressed. The best way for me to explain this was via the use of the example of "military decoding". The military was constantly trying to "break the code" of various organizations. I believed that this was also what the autistic child was doing... trying to "break the code". I then wondered, well, if this was true, why would the fascination with captions at the end of a movie still be there for children who did understand the alphabet... who had broken the code, and understood the basics to the concept of language.
It took me very little time to come up with the answer. Did the military decoder stop reading coded messages once the code had been broken? No, if anything, he reads them with more passion... now understanding the basics and continuing to look for "the big picture" in order to piece more and more together… much in the way autistic children continued to look to decode things in their memorization of often worthless facts. I once knew a child who could tell you the make, model and year for every car ever owned by everyone he knew. Other children could tell you “all the facts” related to baseball players, etc.
Much like the military decoder, so, too, did I believe was the autistic child looking to “further decode” as he captivated himself with captions... trying to understand "more and more of the code" to help make sense of his world. The autistic child knew their was "some kind of message" in all those captions... and they scrolled by so quickly that when he attempted to "decode" captions, his entire focus was on that task, explaining his very much fixated look and the often physical motion of moving up as close as possible to the television screen.
If this thing called "the alphabet" was a code that helped explain so much in his life, of course, he would grasp every opportunity to further "break the code"... and to autistic children who were so often so very intelligent, captions provided an interesting and challenging code to be broken. I, therefore, think that, as boring as it was, parents should take the time to "pause" the VCR and explain these "caption codes" to their children... especially if their child had already mastered the concept of the alphabet. By explaining that these were the names of “people in the movie” or “people who made the movie”, you could perhaps prevent captions from becoming an overtaking source of fascination. In my view, it was absolutely critical to make them understand that this was, for the most part, truly “worthless” information as far as they were concerned and that the only purpose of captions was to let you know who had been involved in making a film. I encouraged all parents to take the time to provide this explanation for their children, and to do so as often as necessary in order to prevent “captions” from becoming “all consuming” in the life of the child. Understanding the “idea” behind captions was all the autistic child really needed to know. Parents had to do everything they could to help the child break the code as well as identify for the child those things that were meaningless in breaking the code to life! :o)
Given all this, what happens when the autistic child was unable to "break the code" - specifically, as it related to language. The answer was quite simple. Either the child remained silent or, in his constant attempts to "break the code" attempted to understand communication and in doing so, engaged in echolalia and "ordering language" - something that had, in the past, been referred to as "nonsense language".
Echolalia And "Ordering Language"© (Once Called: "Nonsense Language")
What some used to refer to as "nonsense language", I chose to refer to as "ordering language" and I encouraged all parents to refer to this behavior as "ordering language" from now on... because that's what it was. It made perfect sense once you saw it from the child's perspective... it was not "nonsense" ... and in fact, when examined in terms of the inability of the autistic child to understand the whole without first understanding the parts, it made perfect sense and was truly a testimony as to the resourcefulness and absolute determination that could be found within these children!
In my opinion, echolalia and ordering language were simply variations of the same coping mechanism used by the autistic child to deal with stressful situations as they pertained specifically to "breaking the code"- to understanding language. The child was simply trying to "order" his world, to "order" what he had heard.
When I had first started phonics with Zachary, he engaged in “echolalia” in that, again, he repeated for himself every letter. It was becoming more and more evident to me that there clearly was a difference between “incoming sounds” and sounds he actually produced himself and as such, his best learning occurred when he himself made the sound! This certainly explained issues with echolalia and ordering language. Language was “better understood” if Zachary uttered it himself!
Echolalia, the parroting of everything one heard, had long been associated with autistic children. It was my opinion, that echolalia was simply an "immediate", "on the spot attempt" at "breaking the code" of language. By constantly repeating what was said, the child was trying to also "figure it out" as well as, I believed, commit the "utterances to memory" for future reference purposes. It was a more "immediate" verbal coping mechanism in the sense that the child was trying to cope with what was happening at that particular moment... what he was hearing "right now".
Ordering language, on the other hand, was a coping mechanism used to help "sort" those things heard in the past or still in the process of being "decoded"- but perhaps not pertaining to the current situation at hand. I saw this as a "less immediate" coping mechanism. It was one the child used as he went about - thinking - and trying to break that code that had yet to be understood. It was important to note that "ordering language" could be related to something the child "heard" during the day, or something "he saw" for example. Ordering language was simply a verbal utterance of "what" the child was trying to decode at the specific time the "ordering language" was heard. Hence, parents should take these utterances as "cues" of things to work on at that specific time to help their children "break the code". There was no doubt in my mind that autistic children somehow processed things "differently" and as such, ordering language could be quite frustrating for the parent who had a very difficult time making it out - at least at first. But, with practice, it did get easier.
Another example of this "ordering language" that truly helped me understand it, was something that happened one day when Zachary was working on the computer next to me. I usually said: "sit down" when I told him to sit in his chair to start working on his computer. On this day, he was already sitting, but, he was very slouched, almost to the point of falling off the chair. So, of course, I said: "sit up, please". When I said that, he replied: "stand down, thank you".
He was making "opposite associations" in trying to understand his world. If the word "up" went with sit, then, obviously, to him, the word "down" had to go with the word “stand” and likewise, the word “please” had to go with “thank you”. Obviously, to counter such reasoning, I must admit was rather difficult for me at first. I simply decided to "show Zachary" the act of "sitting up" and to then show him that you could not "stand down". Instead, I showed him "lay down", "stand up", etc.
Zachary had been trying to “combine words” to figure out how they fit together in order to provide for himself a “reference” he could draw on in the future. These attempts at figuring out how words fit together and how they could be used in the future, I came to call “reference communication©” or "communication by reference©" since Zachary created for himself “references” of how words could be used for future use!
Siblings could be a great help in figuring out the "ordering language" and what the child was saying. On many occasions, I found my daughter Anika, age 10, to be much better able to understand her brother than I was. She understood his utterances as they related to videos or computer programs... when Zachary said something and I just did not understand, often, Anika would say: "mom, he's talking about.... in this computer program". She was more familiar than I was with many aspects of his activities. She had watched the same children's videos, and worked on the same computer programs, and so, often, her insight as to what he was saying was simply invaluable. :o)
Ordering language was a coping mechanism used by autistic children in attempts to "break the code", but, I had come to understand that "ordering language", indeed, had a dual role as a coping mechanism. The first role of ordering language was just that - it helped the child "order" his world - it helps him understand it! The second role of ordering language, however, was that it also helped the child to cope when things "fall apart", when life simply was too stressful and the child needed to "bring things back" to a level he could understand. In this sense “ordering language” was used as an "order fix" by the autistic child when the world all about was too stressful to handle.
For example, when stressed out, Zachary reverted back to words like: "green truck", "a fan, a fan, a fan", or "circle, square, triangle"... these were all things that I could now identify as "coping words" from Zachary's perspective. A green truck was a concrete object he could visualize... with its spinning wheels and colors. A fan, too, was something else he could visualize - spinning - making the partial whole as the blades of the fan disappeared as it turned. Circles, squares, and triangles were specific shapes... they never changed, they were constants and so they provided "order"... or "an order fix" as I called it... a way for the autistic child to reduce his own stress levels by reverting back to "an ordered world" or to those "parts" of the world he understood and by doing so, by "reverting back" to something he understood, the child reduced his own stress levels and was allowed to remain "in control" of the situation. Thus, ordering language also provided a coping mechanism as it allowed the child "to be more in control" of his world. A few concrete examples will better help readers understand this and to also understand why I came to the conclusions I did on this issue.
When Zachary used to be very frustrated at first, before I figured so much of this out, he often made use of one small phrase throughout the day... for what seemed to be no reason at all, out of nowhere, he would say: "green truck".
What was he doing or thinking when he said: "green truck"... out of nowhere? I had often wondered about that. I had now come to see that there were several things going on. Zachary had always been fascinated by wheels... no doubt because of the spinning effect they provided (see section on Spinning). While on the highway, if Zachary ever got upset, all I had to do was position myself next to a large truck and let Zachary look at the wheels for a while... they provided an "ordering fix" for him. Obviously, I could only do this where there were two lanes going in the same direction. Luckily, in the suburbs of Chicago, there were plenty of those "multiple lanes" - of course, those drivers behind me did not always appreciate my doing this. :o) A truck soon became a favorite coping mechanism... as did colors. I was recently told by an adult autistic that - as a child - he perceived objects as colors. This was all very fascinating to me. For more on that, see my section on The Role of Colors In The Life Of The Autistic Child: The Pot of Gold At The End Of The Rainbow©.
If the autistic child indeed perceived objects as colors, the use of the phrase "green truck" as a coping mechanism now all made perfect sense. These two words provided for Zachary two very strong coping mechanisms all rolled into one phrase. The color, in my view so important to the autistic child and his understanding of the world, and the spinning... the making of the partial whole... provided by the image of a truck - these two things, when combined, indeed provided a powerful coping mechanism... an actual image the child could put into his mind to help him cope with the frustrations of life - on demand!
When spinning or other coping mechanisms were not available, Zachary simply resorted to saying: "green truck"... providing for himself yet another perfect "order fix" - a simple way to "de-stress" when life just became to unbearable or stressful!
An example of how ordering language was used as a coping mechanism, a means of "ordering the world" occurred on the day Zachary tried to figure out "Walk" and "Don’t Walk" signs.
Zachary and I had gone to the store to buy something one day. As we crossed the street, I made it a point to show Zachary the "Walk" and "Don’t Walk" signs. He repeated: "Don’t Walk" since that was flashing at the time. At the end of the day, before he went to bed, Zachary started saying: "Walk... Don’t Walk"... and repeating that over and over again. He was "ordering" what he had learned during the day... and in this instance, understanding this concept could literally save his life. It was at that time that I truly understood the importance of ordering language.
I often worked on spelling with Zachary... a subject he loved. I often asked him what word he wanted to spell. Even though he was just under 4 and 1/2, "big words" did not scare him. One day, he asked me to spell one of his favorites, "wheelbarrow" (around that time we gave him many wheelbarrow rides :o) )... so, I wrote this word , on one of our many chalk boards. I then spelled it out with him. This day was really no different than most as we worked on various things throughout the day like potty training, spelling, playing on the computer, etc. As with so many other days, it was soon time for Zachary to go to bed.
I had often taken Zachary to bed with me - what so often started as a desire to simply calm him down for the night usually ended with his staying with me all night. Too often, it was I who fell asleep first. :o) On this particular morning, I noticed something - when Zachary awoke, the "nonsense language", which I have since then come to understand as "ordering language", started right away.
The following morning, the very first thing he said when he awoke, was.... "wheelbarrow... w...wheelbarrow". Again, this clearly showed that his "waking state" was certainly focused on "ordering" what he had learned recently. I had, in the past, seen him do the same thing with "walk vs. don’t walk", with the "entire alphabet... a is for apple, b is for bed, etc., all the way to z... and do that twice, using different words for almost each and every letter before he could settle down for the night - at that particular time, when Zachary would "go through the alphabet saying words for each letter", we had just started to work on phonics.
An excellent spelling program that involved auditory learning was that provided by the following company: http://www.writing-edu.com/spelling/. For $99.00 parents could get 5 spelling CDs for levels A, B, or C. The package included: 5 AUDIO Compact Discs, 1 set Flashcards, 1 set small "zoo" cards, and Intro Video and Teacher booklet. This was a fantastic way to teach spelling! :o)
I had commented in the first book I wrote, Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism, that, once, I observed Zachary almost in "neural overdrive" as he laid on his bed one night, trying to settle down. In this first book, I commented on how it appeared to me as though "Zachary was trying to order his world" before going to bed...a function, at the time, I believed occurred primarily at night... as we slept... that as we slept, our brain somehow "ordered" or made sense of everything we had learned or processed during the day.
Then, another thought/observation came to mind. The incidence of "ordering language", at least for Zachary, was noticeably higher at specific times of the day - first thing in the morning, just before bed, and during stressful, non-orderly activities throughout the day. At the time, I definitely believed that Zachary's problem could lie in the fact that his brain may not be functioning as it should to "order things while he slept" and thus, he had an intense drive to consciously perform the "ordering" function while he was actually awake!
Now that I understood the need to "break the code" in the autistic child, I saw the need to "order" things in waking and sleep cycles. If the need to "order" the world was so all-consuming during waking hours, could this also explain difficulty in sleeping in the autistic child? Could it be that the brain truly was in "overdrive" even while Zachary slept? If this were true, then, it made my belief that for the autistic child - "Rest Is Work Too©"- even more true - because perhaps for the autistic child, there was much more going on during sleep (and waking hours) than should be normally occurring when it came to "understanding the world", and the "ordering" of what had been learned and/or processed during the day! I could not help but wonder. Was his brain in overdrive at night... processing more than it should in terms of "ordering his world" or was this function of "ordering not even occurring at night" and as such Zachary, himself, had to perform it consciously during the day? ... or, was it the opposite... that the need to understand the parts before the whole could be understood necessitated that the ordering function be the primary function during BOTH day and night? I had no way of knowing. All I did know was that Zachary had an almost innate defense mechanism that forced him to perform the "ordering function" during the day, while he was fully conscious or awake. His entire life seemed to revolve around his need to "break the code" - in everything!
Given what I have come to understand about ordering language, I strongly believed that it should be allowed. In the past, I had thought this behavior needed to be "broken" or made "extinct". At that time, however, I simply did not understand ordering language for what it truly was... I still saw it as "nonsense" language... I still saw it as simply "an order fix", much like a "drug fix"... I did not see it as an "order fix" in the sense of it being an actual coping mechanism to make sense of one's world.
As such, I would, personally, never discourage the use of ordering language in an autistic child, but rather, I would encourage all parents to use look at ordering language as a cue of something "to work on", of something "to decode" or explain. Upon hearing any ordering language now, I immediately looked for the opportunity to show Zachary how "what he was trying to order or decode" - that part - fit into the whole. :o)
As the Zachary learned more and more via labels and explanations each day, I found "ordering language" now almost nonexistent. It showed up a little at night before bed, and maybe a couple of times during the day... that was it. The utterances were so few and far apart that most people would probably never even notice them now. :o)
Given the importance of this coping mechanism in the autistic child, I, personally, would not try to stop or prevent it in any way! In my opinion, as the autistic child learned to cope and to understand his environment more and more, this ordering language should greatly diminish, and eventually, will most likely disappear altogether. :o) But again, the key to reducing and/or eliminating ordering language in my opinion, was simply in helping the autistic child see how all the parts fit together to form a whole... in everything. As with everything else, when these coping mechanisms "come out"... I encouraged parents to look for the source of the child's frustration and to help the child deal with that frustration through the use of labels, explanations, fractions, coping mechanisms like counting, etc... those things that provided productive coping mechanisms in that they helped the child to break the code! :o)
I would ask all parents to begin talking in terms of "ordering language". Personally, now that I truly understand "ordering language", the term "nonsense language" is offensive to me. The fact that this was not understood in the past, from our perspective, resulted in a label of "nonsense language" being tagged to children who, in reality, made perfect sense. The fact that parents, researchers, doctors, etc., did not understand this for what it was resulted in our associating very negative labels with these children - making them to be seen as having "broken minds", when in reality, it was simply a matter of our lack of understanding. But, as with everything in autism or any other illness associated with "mental dysfunction" - it's all in the label - and quite frankly, I was tired of our children being seen as "broken persons who made no sense at all"- because everything did make sense - when you saw it from their perspective – in spite of the fact that a very critical function within them, the ability to integrate sensory information, was truly “broken”!
Before we continue with other topics as they relate to language in the autistic child, I wanted to provide for readers "what I used to believe" as it related to "nonsense language". The reason I provided this was because there was a critical lesson here to be learned by all parents and professionals.
Luckily for our family, I quickly realized the importance of "ordering language" and it was because of this "realization" - that "this particular type of language was so critical to the autistic" child - that I wanted to provide an example of what could happen when a negative label was given ... simply because we failed to understand the autistic mind and chose instead to show it as a "broken mind" by associating it with a term called "nonsense language".
The implication of "a broken mind, as reflected in the use of the term ‘nonsense language’", to adults, almost by definition made it so that we "wanted to fix it" - especially if we were the parents of that "broken mind". That fix, could take on many forms... behavior modification or other "manipulation" methods that were based on reward - and, often, punishment - systems, the exposure of the child to countless tests, scans, etc., and perhaps most dangerous of all, that fix could take the form of medications... medications given to a mind that was not understood - and if the mind was not understood, how could medication "fix it" in the first place? Did not the fact that the autistic mind was not understood, in and of itself pose a dilemma in terms of the "effectiveness of that fix"? How could one fix with drugs something that was not understood in the first place?
I knew tests, scans and medications were "out" for us as a family. For better or worse, we had made a decision early on not to go that route. I would thus try my hand at a little behavior modification. I had studied psychology through graduate school and felt I knew enough to give this a shot on my own. I knew this was not the case for all parents, however, and as such, I wanted to caution all parents to read and inform themselves and consult with any professionals they could before undertaking any behavior modification program for their child. I understood enough of what was involved to tackle this. There could be many negative results to behavior modification techniques... indeed there were many techniques out there – most of which, I personally, did not agree with. I chose to stay away from anything that involved punishment in any form. Patience and understanding - those were the keys I would use in my "behavior therapy".
I used no negative stimuli, no negative reinforcements, there were no discrete trials, no use of fear or threats, no goal of a conditioned response, no practice schedules, no reinforcement schedules, no "steps" to work through via reward systems... my "behavior modification" consisted simply of seeing "what Zachary would do if all of a sudden, his nonsense language no longer made sense". All I was looking for in Zachary was to see "how he would react" to what I did... nothing was required of him other than listening to what I said.
My goal was simply to get rid of "nonsense language" .. to see if I could somehow make it go away. I knew that there was a reason for Zachary to use specific "utterances" we knew as "nonsense language", but I did not fully understand why particular words were used, together, out of nowhere and seemingly making no sense. It was difficult to explain, but, what I was trying to do was to get to whether or not this truly was "nonsense language"... if it was, then, any "nonsense language" should produce some kind of response... I hoped I would see "my nonsense language" be used by Zachary too. But, if it was not "nonsense language" and there was more to it than I understood, then, my "nonsense language" should not be "used" by Zachary at all. Would Zachary see what I did as just more "silly things mom does" (see Exercises I Do At Home for more on that :o) ) or would my "nonsense language" make sense to Zachary and would it actually be language he too would want to use and repeat? That was what I wanted to determine!
Well, if "nonsense language" actually "made sense", I thought to myself, I now needed to do something that would make "nonsense language" - not make sense!
So, how do you go about doing that? I found the trick to it... but, it was a very difficult thing to do... requiring a lot of "on the spot creativity"... and at first, that was quite difficult for me. After doing it a few times though, it became a lot easier. What followed was an example of how I tried to "break nonsense language" in my son, Zachary. At the time, Zachary was about 4 1/2 years old.
When Zachary exhibited his "need for an order fix" as I had called it in my first book, as it related to "nonsense language", I went into action as soon as he had completed his first "nonsense phrase".
It was critical that all readers understand that at this time, I still saw the "need for an order fix" much as a "drug fix" ... not as a coping mechanism! This was a critical difference in terms of how I now refer to "ordering language" as an "order fix". Back then, when I did these exercises, I thought the "fix" from "ordering things" was almost like a "drug high" for these children... that it somehow triggered something in their brain that they just "could not get enough of". I knew that may sound crazy, but, that was what I thought at the time... and that was the "frame of reference" I worked with as I did these things with Zachary. Let's face it, there have been many "silly theories" out there as they relate to autism... like the one adopted by so many "experts"... the old "cold mother" theory. :o) That was how we moved forward in our understanding of everything... you proposed a theory, you proved it right or wrong, you kept the proven and then moved forward in search of another theory or explanation to what was still not understood or proven to be true. Of course, unfortunately, as with so much in life, theories were often presented as “fact” and that was always a dangerous trap to fall into!
Luckily for Zachary, in no time at all, I was able to "disprove" my original "order fix equals an almost drug fix sensation" theory and see what the issue really was. It was an "almost drug fix... but not in the physical sense... what these children could not get enough of... I soon came to understand... was that within the "ordering function" for them, lay the key to "breaking the code" to so much. :o) That was where the "fix" came from... the "ordering function" provided for Zachary a "fix" to understanding his world. It turned out that the "ordering function" provided a "fix" but it was a different type of "fix" than what I had originally thought... but, "a critical fix" nonetheless. :o)
When Zachary exhibited his "need for an order fix" - which, at the time, I thought produced a pleasing sensation much like a "drug fix" would produce for a drug addict -, via “nonsense” language, I now took his very utterances – at that moment – and “used them against him” if you may call it that. For example, if Zachary was using “green truck” , one of his favorites, I started saying something like: “yes… did you ever see a green truck going down the road with yellow dots, purple stripes, orange feathers, with a squirrel on top and a dog driving?”
I made it so “unusual” that Zachary actually had to really focus to “picture it”… he just stayed silent for a few moments, trying to “picture” what I had just said. I could "tell" that was what he was doing... trying to "picture it" in his mind. Then, after a little while, he would give me another word. If it was “a fan” or something else that “spun”, I made sure “my nonsense sentence” did not include anything at all that could reinforce the “order fix” he was trying to give himself.
So, I would never use words like: “did you ever see a fan turning…” because the use of the word “turning” could in and of itself provide “the fix” as he visualized what I was saying. So, instead, I said something like, “yes… I have a broken fan…it’s upside down on the floor and there is a bee on it that has a green hat and a brown shoe”.
The idea was also to make sure I did not use “similar phrases” for the same utterances. So, when Zachary used “green truck” or “a fan” again, I had to come up with something else…it could not be something I had already said in the past... it had to be "totally new nonsense language on my part". To break the nonsense language, I wanted it to be “something totally new each and every time” he used specific words to get an order fix. Let me tell you… that was hard work… for both Zachary and me!
There were times when I saw Zachary’s need for “order” also involve an actual, physical need to “withdraw” in his own space. For example, Zachary had the video/story “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle and so, he understood the concept of a “cocoon”. As he played one day, I noticed he was physically making himself a “cocoon”, wrapping himself in a blanket as he literally said “cocoon”. I played along and said, “yes, you’re in a cocoon”. Zachary was pretending to be a butterfly. He then came out and flapped his wings like a butterfly…it was great to see him pretend like this.... I knew pretend play had always been an area of difficulty for autistic children. [Today, I have huge reservations when it comes to pretend play. I encouraged all readers to read my section on "The Dangers of Pretend Play". ]
Later, I noticed, that Zachary used the word “cocoon” as an “order fix” too… almost as if he “sensed” the comfort of an enclosed cocoon. So, when he used “cocoon” that way, I started breaking the nonsense language again… saying, “yes, there is a caterpillar in my cocoon, and it is green with black squiggles, and it wants to come out and eat an apple”. I saw Zachary actually trying to “picturing the caterpillar” I had just described as I used my fingers to pretend I was the caterpillar coming out to look for an apple. Zachary thought that was absolutely hilarious and he started laughing. I always tried to make any exercise I did with Zachary fun for him too… granted that was not always possible as he got very frustrated because I had really “hit a nerve” with what I was doing... I knew his stress and frustration at times told me I was on the right track...but, I did try very hard to keep things fun and interesting... knowing fully well, that in most cases, what I did would undoubtedly lead to frustration and stress for Zachary. But, again, that was what told me I was on the right track! If I got no response at all from Zachary, then I knew this thing with "order" was not "it" - the answer I was seeking!
In looking back now, and analyzing this in terms of how it related to the autistic child's inability to process the whole without first understanding the parts that made up the whole, I had mixed feelings in terms of having done these exercises with Zachary as they related specifically to language. These concerns were expressed in the section, called "Defined By A Negative Label... And All That Implies :o( !".
Before getting into that section, however, I wanted to analyze a little further what happened as I went through the above exercises with Zachary. I must say that in all the times I did this with Zachary, I had never once seen him try to "order" my "nonsense sentences". He made no "nonsense language" as it related to my nonsense language. So, I believed he simply saw these as more "silly things mom does", but he did not, obviously, feel the need to "order my nonsense language", my "utterances". That told me that, at least for Zachary, something was "different" about my nonsense language... and indeed it was. My "nonsense language" actually was nonsense... his "nonsense language" made sense... because it was "ordering language"!
As such, my nonsense language, although funny to Zachary, was something he chose to ignore in relation to his "nonsense language"... he knew for a fact that my language was simply silly... yet, I, and indeed everyone else, had not been able to recognize that his perfect "ordering language" actually made sense - and that for his world to make sense, this was a critical coping mechanism!
Indeed, in my ignorance, I had tried to destroy perhaps one of the most critical coping mechanisms available to the autistic child... his attempts at "breaking the code" as that code related to communication!
Not surprisingly, since the autistic child was so dependent on the "breaking of a code" to understand everything in his life, once the code was broken, he would show great strength in those areas that were very ordered and based on a building blocks approach… those things such as math and language, etc.. This was also true in terms of physical activities such as putting puzzle pieces or train parts together … two areas of intense fascination for the autistic child… two activities that made parts become “a whole” once the parts were “put together”. These activities, in and of themselves, trains and puzzles also provided a coping mechanism for the autistic child in that they helped to “order” the autistic child's world and to “get rid of the parts”... the sources of frustration.
It should also come as no surprise that the autistic child, by the very fact that he needed to “break the code” to understand his world, would be very weak in areas where there was no apparent code to be broken… areas such as socialization, conversation and to some extent, process completion. The key to these areas, surely, was in “providing some kind of a code” for these activities… a list of “things” that go together, numbered activities, etc., to help the child understand the overall situation. Concrete examples of “things to say” or “things to do” would undoubtedly be necessary to gain strength in these areas. As such, role playing was critical for the autistic child to understand areas such as socialization. Conversation and Process Completion, luckily, could be somewhat broken down into “codes” or “parts” too. Conversation included "parts" in the form of subject information, verb information, object of the verb information, etc. Process completion involved sequencing of tasks, thus, lists or numbered activities could be used to one's advantage in teaching processes.
ABCs To “Breaking The Code” Of Language
When you look at the alphabet, there were certain constants there... each letter had a specific "look", a specific order in the alphabet itself (i.e., C always came after B but before D), and, one or two specific sounds.
As Zachary sat there and watched his alphabet videos, videos that were now close to 2 years old, I remembered that 2 years ago, Zachary's absolutely favorite software program was Dr. Seuss' ABCs (By A Broderbund Company). We had paid about $14.00 for this software. Zachary could sit there and either listen to a narration that went through each letter of the alphabet, big and small (the “Read To Me” option) or he could click on the interactive part of the program that also went through all of the alphabet, big and small (the “Let Me Play” option). Each letter had a little “script” that went along with it. For example, on letter “A”, it said: “Big A, little a…what begins with A? … and then it gave a lot of words that began with “a”…all of these words appeared on the screen, along with a picture of each item/word and so Zachary could read along as well as see “what” that was - thus, the label was associated with a visual object. The “Let Me Play” option allowed Zachary to discover all kinds of fun hidden things that related to the specific letter on the screen. This was a fantastic program for any child. It took about twenty minutes to get through the “Read to Me” and Zachary used to love sitting there and listening to it. Zachary could listen to it three times in a row in one sitting. He also enjoyed the “Let Me Play” option tremendously.
Zachary used to watch ("Read To Me" option on the CD) or play ("Let Me Play" option on the CD) this program over and over and over again... and he absolutely loved it. I would say he watched that video or played the software for a good month or two. It was right around the time Zachary started to play with this software that he was confirmed to be autistic by a pediatrician.
Within a month of Zachary's confirmed diagnosis, I had a dream - a dream of "a room of colors". So powerful and vivid was this dream that when I awoke in the morning, I told my husband he had to watch Zachary... that I had to paint - and so, I recreated the room of colors I had seen in my dream. It had taken me 3 days of constant painting. A picture of Zachary's Room Of Colors was provided below as well as in color in the Appendix.
Colors were also key in triggering language/communication in autism. This had indeed been true for Zachary.
When Zachary was diagnosed with autism, he was approximately 2 1/2. At this point in his life, Zachary spoke but a few words... and he did not know the alphabet... so I thought! The very day I completed Zachary's Room of Colors and the paint had dried, Zachary entered the room. I had gone into that room to "admire it" and make sure the paint was dry at 6:00 am. Little did I realize that Zachary had followed me in there.
Upon entering the room he went up to the "alphabet wall", touched the letter "H" and said: "AAAAACCCHHHH". He then went up to the "A" and said: "AAAAAAAAA". I was in absolute shock. I had no idea he even knew his letters... he barely said 5 words and had given absolutely no indication that he knew any letters. Indeed, like so many other children, he had lost almost all speech. At the moment this happened, you could have knocked me over with a feather... that was how absolutely unbelievable this was! Within a few days, Zachary had not only showed me he knew the entire alphabet, he also knew his numbers, his shapes and a few other things as well. Within no time, I could label anything simply by touching it and saying the "label" for that thing. I touched the carpet and said: "carpet", touched the window and said: "window". Anything I now "labeled", Zachary could repeat right away, and he knew it. One "labeling" was all it took ... and Zachary seemed to remember the "labeled object" for good! Those first true signs of Zachary understanding communication, of his understanding the alphabet and all that "labeling" had started in May of 2000.
As I watched the alphabet video on 1/20/02, another thought crossed my mind. I knew for a fact that "order" somehow played a role in many of the issues with autistic children. If autistic children had a problem with order, perhaps they needed to start with the very basics in everything... the "parts" to the "whole"... including the basics behind speech...and that meant the alphabet. I had come to understand the need for a building blocks approach to language in January of 2002. It would not be until several months later, however, that I would see this need to understand the building blocks, the "parts" to understand the "whole" actually applied to everything in the life of the autistic child. It finally all came together when I truly realized that "partiality" (a subset of order) was really the issue for these children... not "just order". Again, it now all made so much sense!
The fact that a "building blocks" approach was needed for language certainly explained why some children had acquired language while others had not. Some had been taught language by parents who perhaps only stumbled upon the proper "order", while others had failed to do so.
Most children acquired language by having parent first begin to "label" things for them. Labels were critical to all children in acquiring language... in making associations that "things had names"... and "things" were then seen as "parts" to other things.
There was a saying, that “the whole was defined by its parts”. For the autistic child, this was indeed a critical observation! Until the child could "define" the parts, he could not determine the whole. Therefore, in as much as a word was made up of "parts" - letters -, it was critical that the autistic child first understand the concept of letters to then be able to progress to the next level in speech - labels and phonics - then the next level - actual written words - then the next level, the definition of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.), then, the next level, etc. Whereas for a normal child what came first were labels, then conversation, then the alphabet, words, etc., for the autistic child, that order was somewhat reversed. Before there could be conversation, there first had to be an understanding of "where" the parts to conversation came from. Hence, in the autistic child the proper "order" for language acquisition was that of: the alphabet, phonics, words, words defined as sentence parts, and so on. More on the proper "order" for the autistic child was provided below. Suffice it to say for now, that the alphabet was first in the line of things that needed to be learned - the first domino that allowed all others to fall into place.
Thus, the key to teaching language to the autistic is simply to build from the lowest building block up in the correct order!
Like with many autistics, Zachary's speech had started with first echolalia and then "ordering language". But, I had not recognized these for what they were. In my eyes, Zachary's "real speech" - speech I understood - had begun with the alphabet...and then phonics... not with words or "reference communication©" as would be the case for a "normal child". Indeed, Zachary's first form of "reference communication©" had been the alphabet... having finally "broken the code" of the alphabet, he now had a "reference point" in terms of these symbols and what they meant. Each reference point had a label, each letter had a name of its own... and that first point of reference provided that first critical cornerstone that had laid the foundations to support all future language!
Zachary had been almost completely silent until I had painted my "room of colors". Only when he saw the "room of colors", did "what he had seen" on the computer and on TV provide the association he needed to start "uttering" letters. Again, I wanted to emphasize to parents that I truly believed color was also key in triggering Zachary's language and as such, I strongly encouraged all parents to review my section on the importance of color in the life of the autistic child. By painting my "room of colors" I had taken these "letters" on the computer and brought them into his reality by actuality painting the letters on the wall... and painting them in various colors. The letters became "part of the wall". It was as if, all of a sudden, "he saw them"... and when he did, he started saying them, one after the other. In thinking about the inability to process the parts without first understanding the whole, you would think that the "letters" would not be perceived as "part of the wall"... that, indeed, like the "parts" to so many other things, they would cause a sense of confusion and not be understood. So, what was it that had been so different about these particular letters... why had they all of a sudden been "seen". The answer, I truly believed, was in the fact that each letter was painted in colors. Colors were truly a "pot of gold" at the end of the rainbow in the autistic child's life as they provided for him a coping mechanism... a means by which, I believed, the autistic child somehow generated his "own code" of the world in order to make sense of it.
Once the code of letters and colors was broken... and I did believe in the possibility that it was a 2-part code, involving both letters and colors, communication could then begin... in its many forms... phonics, labels, etc. The first building block, the necessary cornerstone, the cornerstone to support the entire "structure of communication" had been laid! Not only were letters labeled, but they were now understood to be "symbols" representing something else... each letter represented a specific sound that could now be pronounced... the sounds of the alphabet itself (I was not talking about phonics here... just the actual "alphabet sounds"... as you would hear them if you just recited the alphabet). The "letter symbols" had now been "labeled" ... and Zachary was able to easily generalize that concept to "other things"... numbers, shapes, physical objects, etc.
In Zachary's "room of colors", numbers and shapes had also been painted... they were made "part of a whole", part of the wall and, again, they had been painted in colors. An important thing to note here was that Zachary actually knew the letters and I did not even know it. I had wasted a lot of time by thinking/assuming he did not have this knowledge.
If I had to do it all again - if I were a parent whose child had not yet mastered the concept of the alphabet, I would seriously consider doing colorful letter representations from the very start... and if that did not work within a week or so, I would go back to the drawing board and look for what else was missing in the equation. Zachary also had an alphabet train video (Miracle of Mozart Teaching Your Child... ABCs by Babyscapes, www.babyscapes.com, 888-441-KIDS) that provided the concept of parts making up a whole (train cars put together to form a train). This video provided a lot of spinning letters. Undoubtedly, that had somehow helped too. My point here was simply to emphasize to parents not to waste time on things that were not working. We had a tendency to underestimate autistic children because they could often not communicate back to us. As I discovered, however, that did not mean that certain concepts, such as letters, were not already known. And, as such, the key was in "getting the child to utter what he did know". If something was not working... do not wait months to throw it out... to try something else or look for "what's missing" in your tool set!
I was not much for singing in those days... but, I could certainly see how the "alphabet song" (also on this Dr. Seuss CD) could be used to teach the alphabet since autistic children responded very well to music... and a song, in and of itself also helped with issues of the parts making up the whole since by definition, a song had a beginning, a middle and an end... and the alphabet song was not "complete" until it was "all sung"... thus, this child's song showed how parts (i.e., letters) fit together to form a whole (the alphabet). In actuality, I did not know if Zachary "really" learned the alphabet from the song, the actual going through of the alphabet on this software package, or his alphabet train video... all options were there - I was just thrilled that he finally knew it.
So, for parents having a difficult time with obtaining any speech in their children, I would suggest trying the "alphabet song" first, then showing the child the alphabet on a poster that provided each letter in various colors ... where the child could see all the letters in the correct order at once... a "border" type poster would probably be best.... just one long line with letter after letter (as opposed to a more compact poster where "you run out of room and have to go to the next line).
I had taken the letters and "made them part of a whole" - a physical wall - a new entity, and I had used colors - something I now believed to be so critical for these children. That whole could have been a song... or an alphabet border poster. But, my "whole" was a wall. If you think about it, a "wall" was an easier entity than say, a book, for an autistic child to perceive, if I was correct and their issue was one of an inability to process the partial. To the autistic child, a "book" was made up of "parts"... pages, cover, back, stories in text, pictures, etc.... and to the autistic child, perhaps for him to "perceive" and "understand" the "whole" when it came to the alphabet, he needed to "see it all on one page"... just as on the wall in my room of colors with no “other things” to decode (such as words, pictures, physical parts to a book, etc.). Thus, how the alphabet was taught was critical. I did definitely believe colors needed to be involved and that the "whole" needed to provide some continuity (such as a song, a border poster, etc.). Do I know the exact combination yet... no... but, I do believe I understood some critical pieces that needed to be there... and that now, it was really a matter of parents putting these suggestions together to find the optimal method of teaching the alphabet. It may be that a combination of methods were needed... colors, songs, videos, etc. But, one thing was certain, I did believe that there was a "key" to the proper way to teach the alphabet to an autistic child and as such, this was one area that needed great study since it was truly the one key to unlock all communication!
This theory as to the fact that there was a "right way" and a "wrong way" to teach the alphabet to autistic children certainly explained why some children acquired language and others did not. Some of us may use tools to teach the alphabet that showed the entire thing all at once... like a poster... while others try to use books... a constant source of frustration for the autistic child who has not figured out that a whole (a book, or the alphabet) was made up of its parts. Some parents used a pen... with a single color... others used wooden puzzles with multiple colors. The fact was that there was enough variation in "how" parents tried to teach the alphabet to truly explain why some children "got it" and others "did not
For Zachary, once the alphabet was learned, and each letter had been associated with a symbol and a sound (as in the alphabet song), the concept of "a label", a "symbol" representing something had now been solidified. All of a sudden, I simply had to label something once, and Zachary remembered the label... he remembered "the association" of "this label" for "that thing". I easily took the concept of a "label" for each letter "off the wall" and started to apply it to everything in life.
I was convinced that the autistic child had an inability to process partiality and as such, unless the "parts" of the "whole" were understood, the "whole" (i.e., words or utterances) could not be understood.
A "normal" child learned that a "dog" was this funny thing with fur and a tail. That, if mom pointed to "a dog" and said: "dog", the lesson had been learned... the label given, the association made. For a "normal child", the association was simple. But, I was of the opinion that for an autistic child, the "association" as to "what a dog was" could not be made until the "word itself - the label of dog" was first figured out. I was not saying that each label must first be understood before an association could be made. What I was saying, however, was that in the beginning, as the autistic child was just embarking on his journey to learn language, the concept of "where a label came from", first had to be understood.
Once the concept of "a label" was understood... then, the child would easily learn any label given. To understand where the "label" came from, the autistic child first had to understand the phonics behind the label... the sounds that made up the label. To understand the phonics behind the label, the autistic child first had to understand that letters had sounds. To understand the concept that letters had sounds, the autistic child first had to understand that letters were symbols that represented something... and that this "something" was the code that needed to be broken!
To say: "dog" to an autistic child who did not have an understanding of "the code" behind language (the alphabet) provided for him only an utterance he could not understand. This utterance...."dddddogggg"... what did that it tell the autistic brain? In my opinion, not much! There were "sounds" there, but to the autistic child they were "meaningless sounds" since he had not been taught "the breakdown" of each sound, what it was, what it "said", what it "meant", "how to put the sounds together", etc. But, if the child was first taught the alphabet, A, then B, then C... there was order there. Then, the child could learn "A" says "a" (as in apple), sometimes "a" (as in cake), "B" says "buh", and so on, then, there was order there, something the child could relate to... and not only was order provided but in understanding the alphabet, the code was literally broken to unlock all other aspects of communication!
I spent a great deal of time just "labeling" everything for Zachary... that had its good points and its bad points. The good was in that Zachary had the opportunity to identify "more parts of his world". The bad was in that I was so focused on having him "talk", that I failed to see the "concept" had already been learned...the concept of labels... and so, once learned, he was ready for the next step. I did not see that until much, much later. I spent a great deal of time just "labeling" when I should have been moving on to phonics!
It was fine to label as many things as possible... but once the "concept" of labels had been learned the child would easily learn "all the labels" when they were uttered... and so, the focus now needed to turn to "the next step"... to not stay in the "trap" of simply labeling. It was wonderful to hear Zachary say each and every new word, but, for him, saying new words was not the issue once that "task" or "concept" was learned... the issue was to move on and show how "that part" fit into the next step in communication and the rest of the whole... to eventually move toward actual conversation. Zachary could grasp a concept very quickly... and so, it was always important to remember going forward, to "move on" and not stay fixed on one task once that task or concept had been learned (as in this case, "labeling").
It was probably close to 8 months later that I, personally, came to the realization that Zachary was able to "move on" to go to the next logical step in language... phonics. This was one of those: "If only I had seen this sooner... he could have moved on more quickly" issues for me, and I suspect many parents.
I had parents tell me that even though their child knew his letters, schools often recommended not bothering to teach phonics until in the appropriate grade. Parents whose children were in pre-kindergarden and knew the alphabet for example, were told to wait until kingergarden or even first grade before tackling phonics. I could not disagree more!
Once the autistic child had mastered the alphabet, parents needed to move on as quickly as possible to phonics. Waiting for "other kids" was ridiculous. The autistic child needed to move forward as quickly as possible in those areas of strength... where the code had been broken, because unlike other children, he would be much more challenged than his peers in areas that did not have an "obvious code" - areas such as socialization and conversation.
While "normal children" were still learning the alphabet, the autistic child who had mastered it at an earlier age could then use "that time" to focus on areas of weakness instead of being bored reviewing something he already knew and more importantly, falling further behind in areas that were already more difficult. I saw absolutely nothing wrong with pulling an autistic child out of class when his peers were learning concepts he already knew... and putting him in a class with younger children to work on issues with socialization, etc. Schools may not particularly like this suggestion, but, this was not a matter of what was "more convenient" for the school... it was a matter of "what was in the best interest of the child"!
I had wasted a lot of time by not "moving on to phonics" and I hoped that other parents would avoid making this one mistake I very much regreted in terms of how I worked with Zachary on language issues! I finally did realize my mistake, however.. and there was no "more" time to be wasted "feeling bad" about that... it was time to move on...for both Zachary and I.
With the concept of "symbols" learned - symbols as “things” representing letters, shapes, numbers, I then decided to focus on phonics. Note that this "next step", in our case, did not involve "pictures" or flash cards of any kind. Pictures were still only part of the concept of symbols... and once that concept had been taught, even if only with the alphabet symbols, the next step to language in my opinion, was phonics.
Picture symbols could be used to expand the child’s knowledge of symbols, but in my opinion, once the alphabet was recognized as “a code” and the concept of “this represents this” was learned, it was time to move on to the next concept – phonics! Undoubtedly, in autistic children, communication could occur without an understanding of "the alphabet" first, as had been expressed by many parents who said their children could read but had no concept of the alphabet, but without that understanding progress was far less effective since the "code" to communication had yet to be broken.
Systems using "words" or pictures on cards were not the best way to start teaching communication to the autistic. Sure, over time, you could certainly make a child memorize that the letters c-a-t spell "cat", especially if reward systems were used and have the "association" made, however, I think it was much, much more productive to go the way of the alphabet and then phonics...based on a very specific teaching method that involved teaching the alphabet as a “whole” via the use of colors, etc., because for the autistic child, in my view, it was a matter of simply teaching "the concepts" behind language - of helping the child "break the code" - and once the code was understood, the child would understand all "picture/word associations" - 10 pictures or words would be no more easy or difficult than 1000 because once the "concept" was learned, the autistic child could easily generalize it to understand "all similar things"... in this case, all picture/word associations! I was convinced there was a right way and a wrong way to teach the concept of the alphabet. This was what I had found to be true in my own son, Zachary.
Zachary knew his alphabet, now our focus would be phonics!
I wondered about the best way to teach Zachary phonics for about 5 minutes... and again, I think I just "stumbled" upon the best way right from the start.
So, how do you teach phonics to the autistic child? Surprisingly, for Zachary, it had been much simpler than I would ever have imagined. It had not been that hard and I did not need a lot of expensive materials to do it. It had been quite the opposite actually!
I now knew for a fact that Zachary knew his letters, so I simply took each letter and went through the alphabet saying: "A" says "ah" (as in apple), sometimes "a" (as in cake), "B" says "buh", C says "cuh" sometimes ssss (as in city). Note: I never told him the "as in" part I provide here in brackets... I just provided the letter and the sound… if more than one sound existed for the letter, I would say the first sound, join it with the word "sometimes" for any additional sounds: So, for example, I would say: A says ah, sometimes a. That's it.... nothing else... no other words, no associations (for example, "as in apple"), etc.... just the sounds for each letter...THE SOUND ONLY - THAT WAS IT! I gave “the letter – the sound” only – the lowest level to phonics – with no “word examples”!
In no time, Zachary could rhyme though the entire alphabet providing me with the appropriate letter sound(s) for each letter. Below, I have provided in table format how I taught Zachary his phonics verbally.
There were a ton of materials out there to teach children phonics... and some were rather expensive. However, any person who knew how to read knew the letter sounds... and so, I provided those I used for Zachary in the tables below. Teaching the concept of "letters having sounds" was all that I wanted to do... and that, I could do without a book or fancy materials.
Below, I provided each basic letter sound for readers as well as consonant blends and digraphs most often used. These provided more than enough to get any parent started with phonics. For vowels... I did not provide the "label" of short verses long until much later... I ended up trying to do that later on... although I found that once Zachary knew the sounds, it really did not matter if he knew "this was a long a or a short a"... most adults do not even know that. :o) For those parents who did not know the difference between short and long vowels, the mystery was simple: if the letter sounded like the "letter of the alphabet"... that was the long sound for the vowel - the other was the short vowel sound! In terms of Zachary knowing the difference, this was not a "biggy" in my book as far as having to teach that right away. Teaching the label of "short" verses long could come later... after all, anything having to do with "labels" was quickly learned by Zachary, and so, I knew this would not be a huge stumbling block later on.
Basic letter sounds were as follows - remember, I would not "say out loud" anything I provided in brackets.... I said just the letter and the sound - that was all I provided for Zachary... with a "sometimes" if there was more than one sound. This was key to Zachary quickly picking up the concept of phonics. Also important was to note that for Zachary, I taught phonics "by ear" not "by sight".
By that I mean that I did not use flash cards or other materials (paper, blackboards, etc.) of any type... I sounded out each letter sound(s) for him. The reason I believed you had to "sound" out the phonics was because, again, flash cards, pictures, associations, etc. brought additional "parts" to the situation whereas letter sounds were just that... basic sounds - so there was no "additional interference", no unnecessary distractions to the lesson being taught!
Also, keep in mind that most phonics materials out there may not teach phonics "in order of the alphabet"... taking each letter, in the order it appeared in the alphabet, and providing that letter's sound(s) one at a time - in the correct order. Doing phonics the way I did them below, in alphabetical order, provided for Zachary that continuation of the parts making the whole... the alphabet letters making a sound... later on, I could easily "mix them up" for him.
For parents who wanted to try teaching their children phonics, I encouraged you to practice a little with the chart below before actually undertaking the task. You wanted to be fairly "fluid" as you start calling out the letters and their associated sounds. I learned that the "hard way" and found it confusing even for me to keep this straight before I had gone through this a couple of times... I wanted to keep the long and short vowel sounds, for example, always in the proper order... always saying the "short" sound first, and then the long sound. I knew that would later help Zachary understand the difference... that the "long sound" was always the "second one mommy said for that letter", for example.
Although I had not personally used The Phonics Handbook by Sue Lloyd (ISBN 1-870946 08 –1) in the sense that I did not teach Zachary phonics using this method involving motion, in writing this text, I did look at the Phonics Handbook for “the basics” in terms of “sounds”, “blends”, etc. As such, although I just used the “letter + sound” approach to teach Zachary phonics, the information provided in this section based on “sounds to use” and “what the basic sounds were” in terms of things like blends, etc., was very much information from materials provided in the Phonics Handbook, by Sue Lloyd.
For those parents interested in purchasing this excellent guide, the reference for The Phonics Handbook was as follows:
Lloyd, Sue, The Phonics Handbook, Jolly Learning, Ltd, 1996 (ISBN 1 987946 08 1).
As I reviewed the information in this book as I wrote this text, I soon came to realize that this text was indeed a fantastic tool for the autistic. As such, if there was one “book” I felt to be “the best” for teaching language basics in children with autism – without a question – this was it!
Thus, even though my materials “looked different”, much of the content in the information provided in this section was based on materials put together by Sue Lloyd in her Phonics Handbook – a handbook that in my opinion, was one of the best tools on the market for teaching language in all children, but in my opinion, one of the very best tools especially for teaching language in the child with autism or any other person having difficulty in either producing or understanding language. Thus, although my materials were “different in look”, much of their content in this section was based on the work of Sue Lloyd. I had not used the “motion” in her teaching materials with Zachary, but I had used the basic “phonics information” in terms of knowing for example “what blends to teach”, etc. and as such, much of her information was included/integrated in what “I had done”. Granted, I had used other phonics materials also, but, without a doubt, if I had to “go back” and “start over” with Zachary, I would have made greater used of materials presented in this text.
I sounded the letter sounds out for Zachary a few times... always working my way through the entire alphabet. Since Zachary knew "of the alphabet", he understood its parts... he understood the alphabet started with "A" and ended with "Z"... and so, I wanted to provide the continuity from A to Z without stopping in the middle. In fact, if I did stop in the "middle" Zachary got upset and I had to continue until the entire alphabet had been completed. Within a day or two, I then started to ask him to tell me the sound... and he could! I would call out the letter and say, for example: "A says... " and he would complete the phrase by providing the appropriate sound... if there were more than one sound for a letter, after he said the first, I simply added "sometimes...." and he completed the phrase by saying the second sound. Soon, he could do so even when I "mixed them up"... he had learned the lesson... each letter had a specific sound(s) associated with it... that was all that mattered. Once the concept was learned, it was understood and the concept of "letters having sounds" could now be generalized to "combined letters"... or words! Once Zachary understood and knew the basic letter sounds, more sounds could then be added... in the form of short words and later basic blends and digraphs. Basic blends and digraphs were provided below. Again, I taught these sound in the same manner as shown above.
Once Zachary knew his basic letter sounds, these came easily - the concept was the same... each letter had a sound, so it was just a matter of putting the sounds together. For digraphs (like "ch", all I had to do was say: "c, h says... and say the sound"... that was all it took! The basics blends taken from Sue Lloyd’s The Phonics Handbook included:
bl, br, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, tr, ch, sh, th, wh, kn
So, for all of these, I proceeded just as I had with the letters... For example, I would say:
K N says N (as in knee)
Note: I could have easily used the concept of equations to teach this same thing, but I saw a problem with that. For example, if I said:
K + N = N
Zachary would catch on to that too... but, the more I thought about that, the more I thought equations should be kept for learning math as much as possible... for me to introduce the concept of an equation here may confuse him down the road... that was still too far ahead for me... but, something I did want to mention. So, my preference was to use: KN says N.
Then there were a few more complicated sounds to learn - again, this information was based on that provided by Sue Lloyd in The Phonics Handbook.
Finally, certain sounds could be written in more than one way:
For example, for each of the ways in which the sound could be written, I would say to Zachary:
ER says "er".
IR says "er".
UR says "ur".
So as to not confuse a child too much, however, I recommended either introducing these on separate days, fairly far apart or using an equation system as shown in this table. Again, these "basic sounds/words" were taken from materials put together by Sue Lloyd in The Phonics Handbook.
Note that the important thing in the “equation” was to emphasize to the child that the sound was equal even though the spelling was different. Zachary could easily grasp that concept.
This provided enough on "phonics" to get all parents started on the task of teaching phonics to a child.
As mentioned earlier, the one thing I had not noticed until almost the completion of this book, was the fact that in teaching phonics, although I had not realized it at the time, motion had also played a part… in that Zachary had learned his letters via his Alphabet Train video… a video that involved considerable motion. Thus, in my view, the alphabet had to first be taught using motion, and color, and then phonics would come easily!
I had not personally used The Phonics Handbook to teach Zachary his “first phonics” – the “basics before blends”, although I did go back later to use the information provided in this text to supplement what I had done. My sister-in-law had used this method and for her child, it had worked wonders. So, for Zachary, I knew that “the motion method” described in this text had not been involved in teaching him phonics. Clearly, for Zachary, the “sounding out” of phonics had been how he had learned “basic phonics” at first. Yet, the more I came to understand, the more I saw why The Phonics Handbook and its “motion method” was absolutely key. The critical link between The Phonics Handbook and the “alphabet train video” was that of MOTION! The Phonics Handbook used hand motions to teach sounds…the Alphabet Train video used motion to teach the concept of letters and their names. Motion – I was convinced was – like sound – a KEY element in teaching both the alphabet and phonics and I suspected, that in teaching the alphabet, color had also played a critical role for Zachary!
The one thing I did forget to mention in my first book (Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism) as it related to phonics, was that I also used a video called: Learn To Read With Phonics/Mrs. Phipps and Snoothy. One website that sold this video was http://www.videolearning.com/S0702.HTM. This company sold over 15,000 videos. The one I was talking about was item 10-7060. This was an absolutely excellent video for teaching letters and phonics. On this video, letters were written out carefully to show the child exactly how the letter was made (upper and lower case) and each letter's sound was then clearly given. Zachary did watch this a few times, but he really got the idea behind phonics simply by my calling out the letter sounds as done above. The video was simply something I used to reinforce the concept of phonics while I got to relax a little. This video costs $30.00. You may want to check with your local library ... or local schools. If they do not have these same products, they probably have at least something similar… Zachary knew all his letter sounds before watching this video simply based on my “sounding them out”… but, this video was good in that it also carefully showed how to make each upper and lower case letter too! So, the phonics video had not been involved in his actually “learning” the phonics.
Finally, once Zachary knew these sounds for "letters", I could then move on to the next step... WORDS! Another great resource from Mrs. Phipps for this topic is:
Learn To Read: Volume 2 This video dealt with soundable words, repeated vocabulary, word groups and word families. Five stories were acted out by children as Mrs. Phipps sounds out each word as it appeared on the screen, read the sentence, and then allowed time for the children to read. This was item no. 01-4203 (65 min. $ 29.95). Although I had not personally used this one, another parent of an autistic child suggested it as an excellent video, too!
Buying resources such as these can get rather expensive. As such, I encouraged parents to split the cost of such materials among support group members, etc. and to “create your own library as a group”. I also would not “stock up” on a ton of resources until you knew your child had mastered the first levels that needed to be mastered before moving on to the next and buying the “resources” for that.
Words were easy to teach once phonics had been mastered. I just wrote a simple word, like "cat" or "dog" and ran my finger under each letter as I put the "sounds together" for Zachary. I remembered how Zachary's face totally lit up when he finally understood exactly "where words came from"... these symbols, letters bunched together or "words" that were everywhere in his world... he now understood. Another huge piece of the "language code" had been broken for him. He finally understood how it "all fit together".
After the concept of words had been taught, I worked with a few flash card sets simply to reinforce reading ability. I found at first I greatly underestimated Zachary's potential in terms of reading. I, like all parents, started out with words like cat, dog, etc. I soon realized that Zachary was capable of much, much bigger words. That realization came to me when I awoke one morning to the sound of Zachary reading a label in my bedroom... a label he saw on the television... with perfect pronunciation, he read: "Panasonic". Again, it was just a matter of learning the concept... and once the "concept" was learned, he could easily generalize it to any word and moved forward quickly in terms of his ability to read.
So, from then on, I knew "big words" were ok too. As long as Zachary knew the phonics, he could pretty well make out the word. I now used flash cards to teach new words. A company called Frank Schaffer Publications made the flashcard set I liked the most. You could buy various sets of flash cards (I had 3 sets) with the word on one side and the picture on the other. The sets I had were for 1) action words (product no. FS-3214), 2) picture words (product no. FS-3205), 3) blends and digraphs (product no. FS-3210). These were excellent products for the autistic child. I simply picked them up at a local school supply store. Any school supply store should be able to order these products as this is a fairly large school supply company and it was very well known. I looked for their website, but could not find it off hand. If someone did find it, please forward it to me via my website and I will provide it for all parents on my website.
With these flash card sets, Zachary greatly rejoiced whenever he could make out a word and I would flip the card over to show him the picture. Seeing the picture when I flipped the card for the word he read acted as "the reinforcement" to go on. I did not have to use food or anything else to get him to read once he understood the concept that letters had sounds, and when sounds were put together, they made words... and words labeled things. That all important label provided what he so desperately needed to begin to cope with so much in his environment... and for Zachary, "breaking the code" provided plenty of reinforcement in and of itself!
Zachary's face showed an immense fascination when I put the "letters" and "sounds" together to "make things".... "words". It had been like seeing a little light bulb turn on when he figured out that letters had sounds, and sounds, put together made words, and words provided labels for things... and these labels helped understand "everything else". I literally saw the amazement in his eyes and the joy in his face when he figured that out with the first word he read: C-A-T. That critical "connection" had once again been made!
In no time at all, almost overnight, he had developed the ability to read! In looking back, I spent a great deal of time, just labeling things. A whole new world had opened up. I was so happy that Zachary was finally "talking"... or so it seemed!
Talking In Labels and Commands ... "Reference Communication©"...
The Autistic Child's Preferred Ways to Communicate!
What I failed to realize for a long time was the fact that all of Zachary's speech now simply consisted of labels (words) and/or commands. He knew "what certain things were" and he had figured out that basic commands always produced the same outcome... commands like: "juice please", or "let's go". There were also the "yes" and "no". Because he could respond with "yes or no", I made the mistake of taking this for "conversation" for a long time. His world became one that consisted completely of labels, commands and one word answers...these I came to understand were just variations of "labels"... not actual conversation Conversation was still very much absent.
I now truly became aware of the fact that, for Zachary, "talking" was in "labels and commands". I realized that like labels, specific commands represented or "produced" very specific outcomes. "I want water", "open the door", "let's go walking", "car ride"... as did "yes" and "no" - all of these things produced very specific results... and the results were always the same. Thus, all these things, to Zachary, were no more than variations of "labels". It took no time at all for Zachary to figure out the fact that like labels, commands and "yes" or "no" always produced the same outcome... it had taken me much much longer to actually see that for Zachary, these were just extensions of "labels". Labels, commands and one word answers quickly became his "preferred" mode of communication... not only did they produce a specific result, but he could "get things" through commands and "have someone else do the work"... positive reinforcements indeed... for more than just the autistic child! :o)
Labels, commands and one word answers provided for Zachary concrete things and as such, he quickly learned to "tuck these away" for future use... what I have come to term "reference communication©"! Reference communication© was something we all do, but, for the autistic child, "reference communication" can become a huge tool as the child continues to "decode communication", as we will see under the language section addressing how to teach conversation and the concept of a "sentence" to the autistic child.
Reference communication© played a critical role in terms of helping the autistic child understand "Safety Issues". I strongly encouraged all parents to read this section, for in areas of "safety", incomplete or inaccurate reference communication can be a matter of life and death!
As I read more on parent discussion boards, it soon became evident that although Zachary knew a ton of words, the fact that he spoke in labels and commands meant he was still “non-verbal” in that actual communication still was not there. I soon realized that the term “non-verbal” was a term that meant many different things to many parents. In my view, “non-verbal” should mean that a child only had a few words or none at all. “Non-conversing” was a more appropriate label for children like Zachary – children who had a wonderful vocabulary but still could not carry on a conversation. As much as I hated all labels, at least this one was more appropriate.
I now needed to figure out how to "get" actual conversation from Zachary. Coincidently, another factor would fall into place just at the time I needed it to.
Zachary had been on a supplement called TMG (a Kirkman Labs product) for close to two years now. Kirkman Labs specialized in products for the autistic. This particular supplement was supposed to help trigger language in autistic children, and I did suspect it did do that for Zachary - initially. I ended up running out of TMG in early July of 2002, just as we were leaving for a trip to visit relatives in Canada and, at the time, I decided that since Zachary was now on enzymes, I would no longer use the TMG and see how that went. TMG had a pretty strong dose of vitamin B in it and from parent discussions on the enzymes and autism Yahoo group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/enzymesandautism/, I came to see that many parents felt their children could no longer tolerate TMG and other mega-dose vitamin products once their children were on enzymes. Enzymes helped to better break down food and supplements taken in by the autistic child, and as such, fewer supplements seemed to be necessary.
To my utter amazement, within a couple of days of being off the TMG, Zachary actually started to show more conversation... more actual responding to questions using more words. I could not believe it and thought it was just me... until others noticed it too. I did not know if this was just a "fluke" or if there was more to this... but I did know, that for Zachary, conversation started after I took him off the TMG. I wondered as to why that could be. I had never seen any studies on the long term use of TMG and the result of then "going off the supplement"... so, I really had nothing to go on... just this one observation... in my own son.
Like other parents, I suspected that the enzymes did indeed allow Zachary to absorb more of his supplements and that perhaps now, he was actually getting too much Vitamin B. I had also removed the Super Nu Thera from Zachary's supplement list, again, based on comments from other parents who stated that "mega dose" vitamins had negative effects on their children once they were placed on enzymes. I had learned enough the hard way... so when the enzymes went in... the Super Nu Thera went out... it was only a couple of months later that the TMG ran out. I had placed Zachary on a regular cfgf (casein free, gluten free) multivitamin and so the TMG had been providing an extra dose of Vitamin B he probably no longer needed once on enzymes.
Again, this was simply a theory based on what I observed in my son - but literally within days of being off TMG, Zachary started to show signs of the ability to hold a conversation... it could have been a "fluke", "a coincidence", but I had no way to know either way.
At the time of the writing of this text, Zachary has been off TMG for about 2 months and his conversation skills were truly improving. This was the point at which we were. But, we had made progress even in the last month and so I wanted to share with parents my ideas/thoughts in this area as well... in terms of how I was tackling the whole issue of conversation based on what I had come to understand in terms of the autistic child's inability to process the whole without first understanding the parts that made up that whole.
The challenge with conversation was that it was random... it had no order. So, how do you even begin to bring order to something that had no order? How do you break down the "parts" to a sentence, for example, so that a very young child could understand how the "parts" of a sentence "fit together" to form a sentence and that sentences were then put together to form conversation.
I had noticed for a long time that if I asked Zachary to repeat a sentence, he could repeat the first few words, but then, the rest got all "garbled" as he tried to recall and repeat it. Why was that, I wondered?
Well, if you think about this issue of language in terms of the autistic child's inability to process the partial, what I believed to be the root cause of almost all their problems, then it all started to make perfect sense.
Letters, sounds, words... all of these, in and of themselves provided a "label" of some kind. For example, "A"... this was the letter "A"... that letter was now recognized as an entity in and of itself once it had a label specific to it and it only. The same was true for sounds and words... they provided "labels" for things and became entities in and of themselves... the "part" had now taken on a whole and so, it now became very, very easy for the autistic child to communicate in labels because these "names" for things define specific objects... whether those objects were "wholes" or "parts" of something else... the label made objects entities in and of themselves.
For example, the label "1/2" took a "partial" and made it "whole" ... the label 1/2 made the fraction, "the part", an entity, a "whole" in and of itself... something that could stand alone and be recognized as "1/2".
If indeed the autistic child had trouble with the processing of the parts making up the whole, as I firmly believed to be the case, it made perfect sense that a "sentence" would only appear as a bunch of incomprehensible "parts".... that until the child was shown the labels to those parts and shown how the parts fit together, that conversation would not come easily.
I thought a lot about this issue - how could I make such a young child see the "parts" to a sentence? To show the "parts" to the sentence, I would have to somehow "compartmentalize" the various "parts"... to allow Zachary to see individual parts first, and then to see them come together to make a sentence. So, how do you do that?
I came up with an idea... but I must admit, for quite a while, I debated as to which step should actually come first... the labeling of words as nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc., or the physical representation of a sentence in compartments to show the "parts of the whole". I had not thought about teaching the concept of a noun, verb, etc. to a 5 year old... and so, I simply decided to go with the concept of "compartmentalizing" the sentence visually for Zachary. I knew Zachary quickly grasped labels and so I felt the "concept" of breaking the sentence down into its parts visually should come first, and the labels to those parts, second. Once the "parts" were "there" visually represented, I could then worry about labeling them accurately later on. Partial labels would be enough for now.
As with everything, when it came to working with Zachary, I always went with my instincts as to which way to go. I had figured out a long time ago that the "voice" within me was there for a reason... and mothers, in particular, seemed to have been given a fantastic sense of instinct when it came to caring for their children.
The reason I decided to go with visual compartmentalization before providing labels for words (such as nouns, verbs, etc.) was very much in keeping with my theory that the true problem was first and foremost one of processing the parts to the whole... and that once those parts were understood in terms of how they related to the whole, labels would come easily. If my theory was correct, an autistic child would not be able to "label word types" (i.e., a noun, a verb, etc.) until he first saw how the words made up the whole... the sentence... and for the autistic child, the best way to do that, was via a visual representation and compartmentalization of "a sentence".
So, how do you put a sentence into "compartments"?
Sentence Compartmentalization Via Bubble Graphs
The answer was in what I called "bubble graphs". This concept was based on something I myself had learned when I was in 4th grade. I did not believe this concept was still taught in schools, but it was a fantastic way to teach the "parts" of a sentence... for any child - autistic or not! I modified the concept to make it more applicable for the autistic - specifically!
Before we get into the concept of bubble graphs, I wanted to emphasize to all parents to read my section on the importance of colors in the life of the autistic child. I believed that colors and shapes added extra elements or "parts" to bubble graphs that further help solidify the "compartmentalization of a sentence" for the autistic child... and as such, I would encourage all parents to make use of colors and shapes if they decided to try this. Note that sentence parts should have the same color and shape. For example all information related to the subject should look the same in terms its shape and color used. This in my opinion, helped to group that sentence part into a whole of its own... apart from the rest of the sentence. As such, I decided to use the following shapes and color codes with Zachary:
Red oval = subject info (article, subject, adjective), blue square = verb info (verb, adverb), green rectangle = object of the verb info or object of the preposition (depending on how technical you want to get at this stage – answers who, what, when, where, why, how – here, it was “how” in the sense of, for example, pulling with something verses the “how” you would see as an adverb, such as “pulled slowly”), brown hexagon = preposition info, purple cross = conjunction info.
Note: There were two types of bubble graphs presented for each sentence in the examples below… part “a” and part “b”. There was a tendency to move on to “part b” quickly – perhaps simply because these bubble graphs were so much fun to do – but, as with everything in teaching the autistic, I believed the concept presented in “part a” had to be well understood first, before moving on to “part b” and actually trying to “break out” the bubbles for labeling purposes. The key in everything was always to make sure the lowest building blocks were well laid before moving up in terms of going on to the next concept. If the lower building blocks were not properly laid the foundation to teaching language and conversation would not be as strong and as such, I wanted to caution parents against the inherent desire to “move along quickly”. I found I came much better at gauging Zachary’s pace in this area… I did not want to move too slowly (as I had done with labeling), but I did not want to move too quickly either (as I had done with teaching money – see Teaching Money section for more on that and how I think this needs to be taught)! :o)
Using The Bubble Graph Concept...
To Show How The Parts (Words) Fit Together To Form The Whole (The Sentence)
I used the following three sentences in working with Zachary - the first being the simplest, the last, the most difficult.
1. The train pulled into the station.
2. The long train pulled slowly into the station and was loaded.
3. The long steam train pulled slowly and carefully into the station and was loaded with logs, cars, trucks and coal.
The first sentence would be represented as follows in a bubble graph:
Before I went any further, I provided a basic list of prepositions and conjunctions for parents as basic review. Teaching this concept to Zachary necessitated I have a basic understanding of grammar... nothing complicated... just the very basics! :o)
Prepositions And Conjunctions
Prepositions include: above, across, after, around, at, before, behind, below, beside, between, by, down, during, for, from, in, inside, into, of, off, on, out, over, through, to, under, up, with.
Conjunctions include: and, but, or
An excellent reference/workbook for parents was that of Wanda C. Phillips' "Easy Grammar" series: http://www.homeschoolbooksource.com/EasyGrammarDailyGrams.html. It provided a basic overview for grades 2/3 that went over key grammar concepts. But, any basic grammar book would do if parents felt they needed to "brush up" on grammar.
There were several key things the "bubble graph" representation did for the autistic child. Actually, this concept could be used for any child… and as such, would be an excellent way to help integrate the autistic into classes with their peers.
This graph took the sentence and broke it into pieces... its parts!
Note: When I was young, all we used were "bubbles" or ovals... I varied that concept a little, because I thought that a different shape and colors for each "word type" or "sentence part" would be more useful to the autistic child. Variety in shape and color, I believed, would truly help reinforce these concepts.
Also note that I showed "ideas" as parts to the whole. For example, the concept of "into the station" was left together... it conveyed one idea... and answered one question: The train pulled where? Into the station. This should greatly help with further sentence analysis in terms of actual labeling, etc., later on. Likewise, at this point in time, the subject information was all left into "one bubble"... the words "the" and "train" belonged together. By doing this, I hoped to help Zachary group ideas or concepts. I could then pull them out when it came time to label the "types of words". For now though, in order to understand conversation, what mattered was the understanding that sentences were simply small “parts” lumped together and that each “part” consisted of an "idea".
When the time comes to label the parts, this sentence would look as shown below in 1b… again, I believed “part a” had to be mastered before moving on to this level.
What the bubble graph concept did was that it provided a means by which the child could mentally compartmentalize a sentence as it was being said... and I hoped that this would help Zachary, and other autistic children to remember what had been said more easily during actual conversation or teaching. The concept was really quite simple and it was one I could build on as the sentence became more and more complicated and as the Zachary grew and learned more about grammar... about the concept of prepositions, conjunctions, phrases, etc. The key for the parent was just to start doing as much "labeling" as possible... to start with the basics and then to expand from there!
For example, in sentence no. 2, the sentence was slightly more difficult. Here, I added an adjective (long), and adverb (slowly), a conjunction (and) and another verb (was loaded). In spite of the greater difficulty, however, the concept remained the same.
So, this was basically, the same concept as in sentence 1... with just a few more words added. As far as the "and was loaded", this was where I was taught the "second verb" should go when I was a child. However, if that was too confusing for Zachary, I would not, at this point, have had a problem with moving the arrows to go from "into the station" to "and was loaded" instead of in between "pulled slowly" and "was loaded". The idea was just to get Zachary to "grasp" the ideas in the sentence. To try to develop conversation, I just wanted to ensure the concept of "compartmentalization" of parts (words/phrases) to the whole (the sentence) was understood.
Expanding sentence 2 for the "labeling stage" would give us 2b as shown below (again, this only needed to be done much later... when Zachary was fully comfortable with part "a" of graphs 1, 2 and 3 - and understood the concept of compartmentalizing "ideas" very well):
Now, each part of the sentence could be labeled for Zachary. Again, labeling, in my view would come after the concept of "ideas" within a sentence was learned. In school, most children probably learned this stuff in 2nd or 3rd grade. Since Zachary was only 5, I figured I had time (although, at the time I started doing these exercises with him, again, my enthusiasm got the best of me – again!). But, as I was practicing all these graphs with him, I tried to make sure I labeled for him as much as I could as we work (keeping it to subject info, verb info, object of the verb info was the best way to start). If I saw I was getting ahead of what Zachary could grasp, I simply had to slow down on the "full breakout" and work with the simpler "grouped" ideas graph (the first graph for each sentence). It really depended on Zachary as to how fast we would get to the "full breakout" and "full labeling" of articles (i.e., the), nouns (i.e., train), adjectives (i.e., long), verbs (i.e., pulled), adverbs (i.e., slowly), prepositions (i.e., into), and object of the verb (i.e., station... with associated adjectives, articles that go along with "station").
Now for sentence 3. This was, again, the same concept - just a little more complicated.
3a. The long steam train pulled slowly and carefully into the station and was loaded with logs, cars, truck and coal.
Note that no matter how difficult the sentence became, the "ideas" were grouped together, to facilitate comprehension and provide that "compartmentalization" of sentence parts I believed could help Zachary with actual conversation as it helped him understand the parts to the whole.
NOTE: As I did these examples on a chalkboard and worked with Zachary, I noticed he became confused with the sentence flow... that was easily fixed by a simple arrow change... now the arrow flowed exactly with the sentence... from "into the station" to "and". Zachary easily grasped the concept of bubble graphs. He was truly fascinated by it and enthusiastically answered with the correct answer when asked: "what goes in this bubble?"... so, I was sure this concept would work well for him! I had done this sentence with Zachary the day I first introduced the concept of bubble graphs to him. As usual, I always had a tendency to “get ahead of myself” when I saw how well Zachary grasped certain concepts. I literally had done all 6 of these bubble graphs with him in a matter of an hour or so. As with everything, the "complexity" of the sentence made no real difference because once the concept was learned, it could be applied to any sentence. I did encourage parents to start with simple sentences first, as I did however, to let the concept be understood in its easiest form first and to really work with “ideas” first as opposed to what was shown in part “b” of each example. I planned on “going back” a little to make sure Zachary truly understood the “subject” verses the “verb” info, etc., and I knew that right now, he did not have that understanding… although he certainly loved making these graphs. :o)
Zachary did have a fantastic memory though…a week later, Zachary was able to recall the entire last sentence from memory, in perfect order with no visual whatsoever! Truly impressive for a child who could barely recall a sentence when it was spoken to him in “conversation” right now… but, I knew this concept would ultimately help him with overall conversation issues! Thus, if I could teach him to do this for all sentences as he heard them, to automatically "compartmentalize them", I believed this would greatly help with his comprehension of language and his ability to actually hold a conversation and respond in "bigger sentences" than one or two word sentences as had been the case in the past. :o)
The idea for parents here was simply to experiment and do what worked best for your child. The above, 3a, was better for "idea comprehension" and "sentence" comprehension in terms of "flow" than was 2a ... and "idea comprehension" was the first objective! The exact label (see 2a for “proper” label of that arrow going to “and” as it had been taught to me as a child) could come later once Zachary understood the concept of sentence parts and what each represented. He had after all, just recently only had his 5th birthday – so I still had some time to get these concepts across. :o)
Finally, for the "full blown" labeling stage, sentence 3 would appear as shown below in 3b.
3. The long steam train pulled slowly and carefully into the station and was loaded with logs, cars, trucks and coal.
Note the changes I made to the flow here. This was slightly different from the way I was taught to break a sentence down into its parts, but, I believed this worked better for the autistic child... at least in the beginning. Actual proper labeling was not that big of an issue in that once the concept of "ideas being grouped" was understood (part "a" to examples 1, 2, and 3) it was much easier to "tag the label" to the idea. Autistic children strived on labels. Shifting the visual representation of “parts” in and of itself did not change the actual “label” of those parts, and hence "shifting them around", in my view, was not that big a deal. Once the concept and the labels were put together, it should be much easier to shift things as needed based on what seemed to work best for the child.
Again, note that I had switched the arrow between "into the station" and the word “and” leading to the next verb in order to facilitate Zachary's comprehension. When Zachary was ready for exact labeling, that arrow could be moved to its “proper spot” as in 2a... but, at this stage it was fine like this since it helped keep the ideas or “parts” together and helped with sentence flow, allowing Zachary to focus on the concept of “ideas” to language/ conversation. The shapes maintained the concept of "groups" of similar things (i.e., all red oval items referred to the subject, all blue square items referred to the verb, etc.).
Providing this consistency in labeling via the shapes and/or color would greatly help Zachary as he moved from "idea groups" to "labeling of words within an idea".
So, to recap, I would suggest doing "bubble graphs" with "ideas" lumped together first and ensuring that concept was well grasped (graphs 1a, 2a, and 3a type stuff) to help the child with "categorization" of sentence parts and ideas and then, later down the road, I would get into the full blown "labeling" (graphs 1b, 2b and 3b) of sentence parts as shown above. Note, there was nothing wrong with starting to label, subject items, verb items, etc., almost right away as long as the child was grasping the "categorization" of each group of "ideas" (i.e., the subject info, the verb info, etc.). Indeed, Zachary actually showed great interest when I actually "blew out" the bubbles for labeling purposes. The entire concept of bubble graphs fascinated him... understandably so... since before him were the keys to unlocking yet another code for language... sentence parts!
Once the "ideas" or “parts” were captured visually, the actual exact labeling of sentence parts could really take place, and in my opinion, truly move the child forward in mastering language and conversation.
As with everything, when the child was ready for the actual "labeling" of everything that "labeling" of specific sentence parts needed to take on a specific order to help the child see how the "parts" (word types, such as noun, adjective, verb, adverb, etc.) fit into the "whole" (the sentence). Each word type (i.e., noun, verb, etc.) needed to be specifically defined. For example, a noun was a person, place or thing.
Providing labels to sentence parts would further help Zachary grasp the concept of language. This was a good reference for teaching language basics.
The concept of bubble graphs as shown above could then be expanded specifically to teach grammar or actual word types such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.
For example, for nouns, a bubble graph could be made to show "nouns" in the top bubble with that bubble having arrows to three separate bubbles below: persons, places or things. Each of those bubbles (persons, places, things) could then be made into bubbles of their own with examples of each below in yet more bubbles. For example, under a "top bubble" for "person", you could add arrows to a bubble below with the words: mother, father, sister, brother, doctor, teacher, Zachary, Andrew, Anika, etc. The same could be done with "places"... with words in the lower bubble including things like: beach, park, home, school, Chicago, Arizona, work, etc. Likewise, the same concept can be used for "things".
The concept of the bubble graph was a very powerful tool for the autistic child in helping him to break the code to the meaning of sentences and "how they worked". If I found that Zachary was having too much trouble grasping idea groups, I would simply try to start by labeling the various word types and seeing if that worked better instead (i.e., making bubbles to define nouns, etc. as explained above).
For the absolute genius in labeling sentence types, this was a fun link that would surely keep any little genius from being bored!
Note that in labeling actual sentence word types, I had a specific order in mind.... first the noun... then anything related to the noun... like the adjective (big, fast, etc.) or the article (the, a, etc.). I would not move on to the next "type of word" (i.e., a verb), until all types of words relating specifically to the first type (the noun) had first been identified (i.e., the adjective, the article) and their association to the first type of word, the noun, carefully shown and defined.
Finally, the next step would be to take the same sentences you had previously used and to "move them around" to show how simply changing the order of the words could change sentence meaning as well. Again, I would use the bubble graphs to do this.
If you think of the "building blocks" approach... it was my belief that language should be taught as follows to the autistic child:
1. Start with the alphabet (using songs, colors, border type posters, etc.)
2. Show the child that letters had sounds.
Note that I did not say: Tell the child each letter had "a" sound. That would be incorrect since some letters had more than one sound. To say each letter had "a" sound would introduce confusion for the child when "another sound for that letter was taught"... and I believe that once "labeled" as "each letter had "a" sound", you would have a very difficult time undoing that label showing only "one sound association". That was why I felt my approach to phonics had worked so well with Zachary… I gave him all the sounds for each letter at once, simply using the word “sometimes” between the letter sounds! By introducing all the basic sounds for one letter all at once, I did not “surprise” Zachary by trying to introduce “additional sounds” for the same letter. So, the key was to say: "letters have sounds"...and to say that a letter can have 1, 2 or maybe even 3 or 4 sounds… and to simply join those sounds with the word “sometimes”, as explained in my section on Phonics.
I would work on showing the child the sound(s) for each basic letter by saying them out loud... going through the entire alphabet each time. That provided continuity for the child. In addition, it was less stressful. To stop in the middle of the alphabet may prove stressful for a child who could not cope with partiality, what I believed to be the root of almost all problems we saw in autistic children. With practice, the child would see the "label" to each letter and sound association, and as with everything, that "sound" would become an entity in and of itself and so, as time went on, it became easier to go through sounds "out of order" and to mix up the alphabet. From the time I started to teach Zachary sounds, to the time I could mix the letters up took only a matter of days.
3. The next step would be to show the child that you could put letters together, to make new sounds (digraphs) and that sounds could be put together to make words...and that WORDS provided LABELS for things!
4. Next, I would show the child that you could put letters/sounds together to make words. Once Zachary knew his letters and sounds, it was simple to "put them together" for him... to simply write a word and have him read it by saying: "What does that say"? or "Read that word" and putting my finger under each letter as I showed him to read the first few words. After just a few, he was off and running...
5. Next, I would provide a "visual" representation of the "parts" of the "whole"... the words that made up the sentence by use of what I called a "bubble graph" as shown in 1a, 2a and 3a.... and eventually moving on to 1b, 2b, and 3b after the child had grasped the concept shown in 1a, 2a and 3a.
6. Next, I believed would come the labeling of word types within a sentence... a noun, an adjective, a verb, and adverb and so on... in a very specific order, as noted above.
Order I would suggest: noun, article (i.e., the, a), adjective, verb, adverb, object of the verb or preposition (answers who, what, when, where, why, how), phrase (idea), preposition (with, under, into etc.), and conjunctions (i.e., and - words that join ideas or phrases). Show that ideas could be put together to make a sentence. Sentences should be labeled as complete thoughts. Sentences could be put together to make paragraphs. Paragraphs could put together to make a story, show a lesson, provide information or for pleasure/fun. Lessons had to be defined as teaching you facts, morals or could be just for "fun". Each one of these things would need to be labeled and defined as its own entity, with its purpose made as clear as possible for the child (i.e., the paragraph, the sentence, the lesson, etc.).
7. Next, I would change the order of the words in the sentence... the order of phrases within the sentence to show how changing order can change the meaning as well! :o)
8. The next step to actually getting to conversation was to help the child "visualize the bubbles" away from the paper/board - as conversation was taking place. This could be done using your finger and "drawing/placing/pointing to the bubbles in the air - as you spoke". This provided a visual reinforcement for the child that "conversation was simply sentences with parts"… and should help take the concept of “bubble graphs off the wall or chalkboard” to apply it to daily life!
9. The final step would be in helping the child focus on the "important parts" of the sentence... to explain that "when people talk, the important stuff was usually at the beginning or the end of a sentence" and that you had to "answer" the person. To answer, would mean to answer the question, or reply to the last part of the sentence. Role playing would greatly help in this area. For example, I often asked Zachary a question and then provided the answer to… and then, made him repeat it.
For example, if I asked Zachary: What are you doing? If he did not answer, I answered for him and told him: "say... I am watching tv mom"... and he usually then repeated the answer for me. Much as with echolalia and "ordering language", this helped him to "order" appropriate responses for future use - reference communication, as talked about earlier.
Zachary was just starting to initiate conversation... right now, he answered my questions. He was getting slowly better at using more words in his replies. I had also noticed that he was now using more "statements of fact" in his conversation as opposed to labels and commands. For example, he was finally saying: “I am tired” and expressing emotions or “how he felt” more. Since autistic children had such limited speech... and speech development was often so lengthy, it was easy to fall into the trap of "conversation" simply taking on the form of "questions" initiated by the parent/caretaker. Parents, like children, needed to work at increasing the variety in terms of the types of language used... to move away from "just questions" to "exclamations, statements of fact, etc." I, personally, found this hard to do after having spent so much time always "questioning" Zachary.
Although I, myself, was just really at this stage of moving from labels and commands to actual conversation with Zachary, I found that he was quite receptive if I did the following: When he asked for something, I took it the next step by asking him for the "object of the verb"... in other words, I always tried to ask him to answer the "who? what? when? where? why? or how?" behind everything he wanted. When he said something, no matter what it was, I tried to "tag on" one of these questions to expand on the idea.
A simple: "give me that" on his part was followed by a "what do you want that for" on my part. "I want juice, please" on his part was followed by a "where are you going to drink that juice?" on my part. It was easy enough to switch the "who?, what?, when? where? why? and how?" around to create a little variety in speech. For example, I could also respond: "how do you want your juice?" or with "when do you want some juice?". At this point, I pretty well always had to answer for Zachary, and make him repeat the “answer”, but that was fine since I knew this helped build that “reference communication for him”. Anything to help further the idea just one more step would eventually go a long, long way toward helping actually get to conversation. :o) Using this concept in reading books, and pointing out the "who? what? when? where? why? how?" as the book was read should also help a great deal in making this whole concept of phrases as ideas, or parts to a sentence a lot more concrete.
Obviously, since I was just starting to do this myself, Zachary still struggled very much with my doing this... so, I always helped him along by giving him the answer and having him repeat it. This did a couple of things. It helped reinforce the concept of "what is the object of the verb"... and therefore, this helped him "understand the ideas" or "parts" to the sentence and made my paper examples of bubble graphs now become practical, concrete examples of speech that he could use for future reference. Once I could get Zachary to think this way, I believed conversation would flow much more readily and that comprehension would be greatly increased (although I did believe he truly understood a lot more than I gave him credit for :o) ).
The key to all language, however, in my opinion - was labeling and the definition of purpose for each type of word or phrase! The more parents labeled and explained, the more the child would understand - the more he would "break the code" and the greater his progress would be... in all areas!
Given what I had come to understand, as provided further in this document, I also believed that motion was critical in terms of actually understanding language and the meaning of words. Thus, “moving bubble graphs” would be the best way to teach the “concepts” behind language (via software, videos, etc.).
In terms of teaching language, there were a few other key areas that I also wanted to address in terms of "how" I would teach them based on what I had seen in Zachary.
To The Autistic Child...
Synonyms and Antonyms
Much like the concept of "same" and "different", the same stumbling blocks were true in teaching the concept of "synonyms and antonyms".
I knew this had been another area of struggle for Zachary. I found that the key was in "which words" I used to teach this concept. Zachary understood the concept of "equal to", so, when teaching synonyms or antonyms, or the concept of "same" verses "different", the words "equal to" or "not equal to" went much further in getting the point across than saying for example, "means the same thing as". "Means the same thing as" had no meaning to Zachary... for him, all things were "this" or "that"... so, the difficulty was in breaking that understanding that something could only be "one thing"... that only "one word" could represent "one thing". The best way to do that was to use the words: "equal to" or "not equal to"... that made it clear and provided the "order" Zachary needed to understand the concept.
Once he learned what words could mean the same thing or could mean opposites, I could expand his vocabulary even further by using "equal" or "not equal". By the way, the concept of opposites worked well for Zachary... so, responding to "what is the opposite of ..." would not be difficult for Zachary. Again, however, it was an "all or nothing", up verses down, open verses closed... so to teach “more” antonyms, I believed there would be greater success in expanding vocabulary by perhaps switching between the use of "not equal to" and "opposite of".... in the same way that "equal" should be used along with labeling something as a "synonym". Proper labeling was critical! One or two word labels were best to teach concepts. As with everything, I found it critical to try to teach the "in between", the "parts" or "variations" to each concept… to use examples that showed degrees of "sameness" or of "difference".
Words That Teach Quantity, thus, were another excellent tool (see section on Words That Teach Quantity).
The key to teaching so many concepts, I found, was simply to use "equations" to teach variations of the same concept. This, I believed, was the critical key to overcoming issues with incomplete reference communication – especially as it related to issues of safety (see section on Safety).
In teaching the concept of "same verses different"... I took pictures that looked alike, but not quite... showed gradual increases in "sameness" or in "difference"... changing "one thing at a time"... adding "one difference or sameness" at a time... and using the Word To Teach Quantity as I went along... saying for example: "This one is just a little bit different" and pointing out the difference on the picture. I labeled the difference for Zachary by verbally expressing the difference.... then, once Zachary had reached the exact same picture as the original picture, I would say: These are exactly the same... emphasizing the word, "exactly". Again, was all in teaching the "in between" and labeling the "in between" for the child!
Homonyms were words that were spelled the same way but had different meanings. For example, a pool of water and the game of pool (played on a pool table). I had not had to do much with these yet, but I did anticipate that they would pose a problem. I was sure that the use of equations would help, but, again, using the same word to mean different things would undoubtedly cause issues for Zachary. This was simply not an issue I had really had to deal with so far. Perhaps in this case, pictures would be best used... with the words written below them. I had done many flash cards with Zachary. Perhaps the key here would be to teach these separately. For example, not to teach the 2 meanings for 1 word spelled the same way on the same day... but to actually space out the 2 definitions... providing one on one day, and perhaps the other a week or two later. I think time and pictures would be the best tools to use in teaching this concept that one word could mean many things.
For the autistic child, homonyms would definitely cause confusion if taught on the same day... because for the autistic, everything needed to "make sense" and have its own label... and here, the " one label" was used to mean more than one thing. Thus, the "parts" could be defined based on a specific label alone... and as such, I believed that with that label must come something else... perhaps "a picture", or some other association in order to help solidify the concept that one word could mean many things.
Homophones were words that sounded the same, but were spelled differently. An example of homophones was: to, too, two – or sun verses son. Here we had words that sounded the same, but that meant something different. With homophones, I thought that teaching these words on different days would again be key. Things that were “the same” (here the same in terms of sound) but that mean something different should not be taught “together”… I just thought that would introduce too much confusion for the autistic child, although, due to the different spelling, I believed teaching homophones would be easier than teaching homonyms.
I believed that once homophones were taught (preferably separately), that the autistic child’s accurate mind would simply memorize these as “different” words even though they sounded the same due simply to the fact that they were spelled differently. In this case, the parent’s tool of choice was again, definitely “time”… actually teaching these on different days. Again, the use of equations in the form of “two = 2” or “too = also” should help. Another example would be the use of son verses sun... again, the concept was the same, sun = something in the sky that was yellow, whereas son = mommy and daddy's boy.
In working with Zachary, I also noticed that acronyms were a problem for him. For example, as he worked on the computer, I noticed that Zachary would always say: "hit oak" when he saw the word "OK" on any computer program. So, he could not read the letters to the acronym... he read the acronym as he would read any word... and with "ok"... that produced the sound of "oak".
I had only started to work this issue. In using bubble graphs as discussed in my language section, I once made use of the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as an object of the verb. Rather than writing out the entire title in the bubble graph, I simply wrote: "T.T.L.S." and pointed to each letter as I said the song title. Zachary had seen the title spelled out in the sentence and so it was easy enough for him to make the association. This was the only time I had ever really worked this issue with Zachary. I honestly did not think this concept would be that difficult a concept to teach as the use of equations (i.e., "equal to"), visual representations and actual verbalizations as to what the acronym meant, together, should greatly help the autistic child understand this concept. I found that in teaching acronyms that “periods” between the letters were better than just letters in terms of getting the point across.
Finally, in teaching Zachary anything, I found that some of the best coping tools I could provide were "Words To Cope" and "Words That Teach Quantity". Both of these greatly helped me to reduce Zachary's stress levels when things simply became too frustrating.
Words To Cope©... Words Of Encouragement...Words To Help Understand...
In working with Zachary, I found specific words to be a great help for him. When frustrated, he came to use these himself to deal with frustration.
For example, if something was particularly frustrating, I would always say:
"it's ok...it's ok..." or "try again...", or "you can do it..." or "all done", etc. When things did not work exactly the way he wanted... for example, when a stack fell over, I would say: "it's broken" or "it's too tippy". To help him separate a part from the whole (for example - a band aid on the skin), I would say things like: "it's stuck". Again, that helped him cope with the fact that something that did not belong "was there" and that better helped him cope with the "partial" (i.e. the bandage) and helped him accept it as part of the whole... as something it was ok to have there. Using "all fixed" also helped in many, many situation. These were just simple examples of words I used that I found very helpful to Zachary... you could use them in many, many situations to help your child cope with the partial he had so much difficulty with. "Bye-bye" was another one... a word to help "complete a visit" for example... much like "all done". "All done", I found helped tremendously in going from one situation to another... helping with transitions... helping to see completion of one task and time for the next.
Words like: "it's stuck" or "it's broken" were especially important to Zachary. Given his inability to cope with partiality in anything until parts were labeled and made entities in and of themselves, I could certainly understand, why these two short phrases, in particular, were among Zachary's favorite in helping him cope with stressful situations. Things that to him did not appear to belong were just “stuck” or “broken”, until they could be better explained and understood.
Also - again - helping him to "understand the problem" was a great help. For example, if Zachary wanted to stack a lot of big Legos and they tipped over, I would say: "make it sturdy" and show him how to do that as I reinforced the base of his stack and said, "see, now it's study". Soon, as I kept saying "make it sturdy", the frustration pretty well went away and he could cope much more easily with the situation when the blocks tipped over.
So, the key was to provide "Words To Cope©" when frustration presented itself. Other words I used were: "it's ok to be different", or "it's ok to be silly", or "let's make it different", or "let's make a funny pile", etc., ...as I showed him how to make things different, or funny, or silly, etc.
Another key phrase I used was "try again". Zachary really caught on to that concept...whenever I gave him something he did not want to eat, now, he would say: "try again"... it was so funny! He did the same thing when I tried to engage him in activities he did not want to do, etc. I guess you could say that's his "favorite saying". When he could not do something on his own and needed my help, he caught on to the “you can do it” phrase I used with him… only now, he said: “you can do it, mom”. :o)
I made all these simple words/phrases part of my daily vocabulary...they helped increase flexibility... and that was key! These concepts were concepts parents used everyday with their children, to various degrees, and I suspected, this also helped explain why some children coped better than others... it was all in the labeling, the use of the "right words" and in explanations (i.e., of purpose, etc.). :o)
Words That Teach Quantity...
Another great tool for teaching the autistic child!!!
I used many words to teach the concept of "the part" verses "the whole". The words below were but a few to get parents started on teaching quantities or “in between” situations. In addition, when teaching a specific thing, a specific concept, the "degrees" within that concept needed to be taught... the part verses the whole in everything. This was applicable for teaching in all areas of life for the autistic child. These words helped the child understand a multitude of concepts in terms of how the “parts” fit into the “whole”.