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Kids With ASD Need Help Understanding Language — Here's How We Do It

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Courtesy of Nikkya Hargrove

Most days, I think I’m doing a good job as a parent. But there are other days when I just feel like I can’t catch a break. Like the day my son’s therapist told my wife and me something so basic, something so obvious, that I questioned everything I thought I knew about how we communicated with our son who has autism spectrum disorder. I thought we were on the right track, until we weren’t.

People communicate through verbal and nonverbal language, and understanding both can be a challenge for a kid on the autism spectrum. For my son, modeling effective communication means that I need to answer his “why” in my response before his anxiety or anger sets in due to the frustration of not understanding what is needed of him. The words we say to an ASD kid, and the way we say them, matter.

When I am in the thick of it — parenting, that is — I don’t always slow down to think about the words I am using at the moment or how I am using them. It’s hard to always know the “right” thing to say, especially when I am managing my neurotypical daughters’ behaviors along with my son’s needs.

There are two ways that I work on developing his language, which speech-language pathologist Kevin Stuckey calls language expansion and language extension.

Courtesy of Nikkya Hargrove

Language expansion is narrating activities or experiences without adding any new information or requests. This technique works particularly well for younger kids who communicate in one- or two-word sentences. If they say “want more,” you can say, “Oh, you want more crackers? Okay.”

Another technique is called language extension, which is a way to add new information to a sentence. When it comes to getting to his summer job on time, for example, I can say, “Your campers are depending on you to get there on time. Let’s go. We will be late,” which adds a layer of syntax for clarity.

Courtesy of Nikkya Hargrove

A neurotypical child wouldn’t necessarily need this type of clarification. But for kids with autism, this is the very area in which their skills differ. My son does best with direct, clear, and concise language. There are times he will ask us what something means or to clarify something he’s heard because he doesn’t understand the context.

As my son gets older, and acquires more responsibility — like getting to work on time — how and what I say to him is especially important. It matters not only for his understanding in the moment, but can impact how he manages his time in the future. It also teaches him about what kind of expectations a boss (or teacher) will have on him. Life skills can also be taught in the moment. This was something I worried about as the parent of a child with ASD. I worried he would miss out on these essential life skills. When I found myself wallowing in the worry of it all, I was missing out on teaching him language skills like expansion and extension.

With the complications that social media, DM’ing, and texting give us as parents, it can be hard to keep up. What we know about language skills is that they form over time. When we read books or listen to podcasts or one another better, we can grow our own vocabulary. It’s the same for our kids who are on the spectrum. It just may take a little different approach, that’s all.

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