5 Things to Remember Before You Make an Autistic Child Speak

It was amazing to watch this interaction between two young, fun loving adults.


Both are geniuses in their own way.


They helped me lay out paper, paints, brushes and water for the art activity.

The Whiz covered his sheet with a medley of colors, dabbled his fingers in paint here and there. He wanted to finish as soon as possible!

The Artist shifted his studying gaze from the painting to the Whiz. His expression was clear.

I almost heard him say, “Seriously? Is this how you paint?”

Then he looked down at his still empty sheet. He selected just 2 colors – yellow and red. A few strokes here and there. Lo and behold! A masterpiece emerged.


It was time to change the activity.


This time they had to share an iPad, so we decided to take turns.

The Whiz selected a memory game at its most difficult level. His fingers flew around the iPad, as if caressing it. I couldn’t fathom how he operated it so fast! He reluctantly handed it over when it was the Artist’s turn.

The Artist selected the easy level. He hemmed and hawed as he played the game. I could see the Whiz controlling himself from pulling the iPad back.

He watched like a hawk as the Artist played his game. And his expression said, “Buddy, you’re taking way too long!”

The Artist turned around to ask for something. That was enough time for the Whiz to reach out and complete the entire level.


I laughed out aloud.

What an animated interaction! How natural!


This interaction happened almost 2 months ago. Yet it’s as fresh as a dewdrop in my mind!


Both these young adults are on the Autism Spectrum. One of them is non vocal, while the other uses limited words.


Restricted communication is one of the characteristics (or symptoms) of autism (including high functioning autism like Aspergers’ Syndrome). Please note that I said restricted communication and not speech. Because instances like these make me realize that communication is much more than words.


Autism's challenges to communication and how to address them


A few days ago, the father of a 16-year-old came to see me. His son has done well at school, and he is on the Spectrum. However, the parents are facing problems at home due to the boy’s controlling nature.


Another thing bothering the parents is the fact that their son does not have friends.


His conversations with other boys go along the lines of -


“How are you?”

“Did you go to school today?”

“Did you take leave from school?”

“Did you get permission from the principal to take leave?”


It broke my heart to hear that such conversations occur every single day. They occur irrespective of the answers that the boys come up with. Over a period of time, the boys have stopped interacting with him. Really sad.


Let me say this again – Communication is much more than words. So if you are measuring communication with the number of words a child speaks, you are missing something.


There is a marked difference between conversation and communication.


Conversation is the exchange of words. Communication, on the other hand, is the sum of several important parts. It includes the act of thinking about what we want to say, and basing our response on the behavior of the person(s) in front.


80% of the enquiries we receive are from parents who are desperate for their child to talk.


If you have the same question, I understand your pain and anguish. I want to reach out and help you.


But first, you must understand a few things:


1. Communication is about reciprocity


Not about one person dominating the conversation, and certainly not about word production, or the number of words being used…


Communication is about how effectively those words are used in a back-and-forth exchange. It is about being interested in what your partner has to share; it’s about reciprocity.


One of my students was habituated to ask the mothers who came to our center what they had cooked that day. The delighted mothers would answer elaborately. But he was not interested in their answers. In fact, he didn’t even wait for them!


He probably had been taught to ask certain questions to increase his ‘wh’ repertoire.


2. Communication is about mindfulness


You can teach rote answers to questions. But effective communication involves mindfulness. It involves being aware of what is happening around us – in this dynamically changing world.


When we lived in Dubai, we went for a walk to the beach almost every day.


Once home, Mohit was asked, “where did you go?” He learned to answer, “beach”.


For a long time, whenever he was asked where he went, he responded with “beach”.


It was funny initially. He hadn’t been to the beach. But it was a learned response. A response that would get people to move on with the conversation! Or to leave him alone!


3. The basis of communication is emotional sharing


make autistic child communicate effectively through emotional sharing and reciprocity


We communicate to share… our emotions, knowledge, experiences… There is joy in sharing. We communicate to exchange ideas.


Emotional sharing forms the foundation for development of self, understanding self and the other. It forms the very base of communication.


If emotional sharing is not in place, it results in unnatural and superficial communication. You don’t want that for your child, do you?


4. A large part of communication is non verbal


Have you seen a conversation between deaf and/or mute people?


The conversation is marked by animated facial expressions, gestures, use of body language, and sharing of emotions.


Mesmerizing conversations!


Yet, no words are used.


Shouldn’t we be working on developing this extremely important foundation of non verbal communication for those on the Spectrum?


5. Motivation is at the base of communication


We communicate with people because we WANT TO connect with them. I’m talking about intrinsic motivation.


Observe your child or your students. Are they motivated to talk to each other?


Who is doing more work to communicate? Are you putting in all the effort to get a response or is the child initiating the conversation?


So, how do we get to this stage of developing communicative intent? How can we make a child communicate rather than simply talk? How can we understand what works for them?


I’m not going to beat around the bush. My straight forward solution is Co-regulation.


It appears to be a complex word, but it’s quite simple.


Here is something that will help you understand co-regulation better.


How did you find it?


Dr. Gutstein says:

“Co-regulation is the simplest and yet the most potent tool that we have. This is because it is the simplest form of meaningful communication.”


I’m going to tell you something that you may already know: that it’s never too late to bring about a change.


You can have the most amazing relationship with your child. A relationship based on sharing and caring.


With this article, I have just touched the tip of the iceberg.


Stay tuned for the next article which will focus on co-regulation and what happens after we build communicative intent. [Update: Read it here]


I will be happy to assist in whatever way I can to help your family with developing meaningful communication. And I would would love to hear your experiences with communication and conversations.

Kamini Lakhani

Kamini Lakhani is the founder and director of SAI Connections. She has been providing services in the field of autism for more than 20 years and is the authorized director of Professional Training for RDI in India and the Middle East. She is also the mother of a young adult with autism.


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