I am increasingly convinced that we need to come up with a different set of milestones for how less verbally-inclined people learn language. Over and over, I see studies where researchers and educators work very hard (and not always successfully) to get autistic kids to meet the various stages of typical language development… contrasted with numerous stories in which autistic kids, teens, and even adults finally acquire language skills (verbal or written) in unexpected ways after years of ineffective therapy (well-known examples include Carly, Emma, Tito, Larry and Tracy, and more recently Drew, Mike, and Ethan).
Sometimes, the language acquisition is described as “sudden” or “unprompted.” Other times it is the definite result of deliberate struggle. But in either case, it seems clear to me that the professionals invariably mis-evaluate the person’s communication potential because they are looking for the “typical” developmental stages rather than acknowledging that communication and language skills may evolve along a different trajectory in non-neurotypicals.
My experience with nonverbal/preverbal kids also leads me to suspect that at other times, some of the “typical” steps are present, but in a form which often goes unrecognized. Attentiveness, for example, looks different in an autistic child (or adult!) than a neurotypical (NT) one. A NT child who is listening intently to an adult is generally seated, relatively immobile, and making eye contact, whereas an autistic child giving you their full and undivided attention may be pacing, rocking, or engaged in another physical activity… and almost certainly isn’t letting themself get distracted by trying to stare at the speaker’s face!
I recently got to spend a day with Tangles, after not seeing her in quite some time. Her mother says that she’s making a great deal of progress– trying to do more for herself, eating with utensils (albeit not very neatly), and verbalizing a lot more. I asked if there were any particular “homework” (therapies or programs) for me to practice with her, and she laughed and said “just do what you always do with her. It gets her to talk more.”
That surprised me a little bit, because I didn’t realize that what I was doing with her was anything particularly special. But I guess it is. Here’s the thing: I engage with her. I don’t just talk around her or at her or even to her (although I do all those things at times)… I converse with her. Even if her part of the conversation consists entirely of simple syllables like “ha” and “buh” and “foo.” I listen when she says them. I repeat them back to her, sometimes exactly as she said them and sometimes with variations. I get excited when she mimics my variations or comes up with ones of her own. I did this with Fishy too.
I also do the same pattern of interaction in nonverbal ways, especially with Rhythm. We hold conversations in patterns of clapping, stomping, face-making, or touching each other’s hands. We share attention and direct each other’s attention to things– feeling textures or watching patterns or listening to sounds together. These things are interactions, examples of joint attention, and without them, these children have no reason to even TRY communicating with me.
Think of what we do with babies. We crouch down at their level. We engage in things that interest them– playing peek-a-boo, shaking rattles, cooing in baby-talk, giving them the things they want like food, warmth, motion, smiles, bright colors. We connect with them, with what interests them. This is how they get the idea that they can connect with us in return.
Autistic children are all too used to having their interests (if not their needs) ignored by those around them. Parents often speak of their autistic children as being “in their own world”– but all children are. The difference is that there are standardized bridges between the worlds of NT children and adults– storybooks, games, and above all lots of verbal interactions. Many autistic kids, I suspect, would be just as happy as NT ones to share activities and special moments with their parents, but the parents are often oblivious to how to engage in the experiences that excite their kids, and instead resort to trying over and over again to drag autistic kids into activities that they do not enjoy.
Tangles did something special that day, and as usual, I came close to missing it. I had brought her a handful of brightly-colored drinking straws, because she enjoys chewing on plastic. She shook them out of their bag and started chewing one right away, babbling at me happily. I sat with her making sounds for a while. She played with the straws. Then she shoved one of the ones she was holding towards my face. At first I thought she was just playing with it. Then I suddenly realized: she was trying to put it in my mouth. I almost laughed, but then the implication hit me: she was sharing something she liked with me. It was as though I had brought her a box of chocolates and she had realized that the friendly or polite thing to do was to offer me one. So I took the straw in my mouth, said thank you, and chewed on it for a while. And I was incredibly touched, and proud of her.
Yes, the intent to communicate is there. We just have to be careful that we don’t miss it because it doesn’t look exactly the way we expected.