FREE Fun Template + Unique Ideas to Help Kids with Autism Start Conversations about Their Summer Vacation!

Standard

Summer VacationAfter a day of school, a birthday party, a recently watched movie, or a return from summer vacation, kids with autism do not tend to initiate or share their experiences.  This usually leads most adults to start a line of interrogation, such as:  “How was school today?”; “What was the movie about?”; “What did you do during summer vacation?”.  Unfortunately, not only does this cause dependency on others to initiate for the child, but the child tends to give only bits of information at a time, thereby creating disjointed communication.

This lack of initiation or of sharing is the result of systemic issues at the heart of autism. The person with autism tends to be inside himself, so he often will have difficulty connecting emotionally with others while experiencing an event or activity. Furthermore, if he has already experienced the event himself, he does not understand the purpose of sharing his memories purely for socialization. Even when he wishes to share his experience with someone, he can be confused as to with whom his story will be best received.

You can help your child make these connections both during and after her experience by pointing out distinctions and later choosing a suitable conversational partner.

DURING THE EXPERIENCE: Point out the interesting, odd, exciting objects, events, or activities.

Examples:

  • “Wow!  Look at that huge log flume!  It goes around and around and up and down!”

  • “Are your feet burning on this hot sand?”

  • “Oh my goodness!  That fish looked like it was flying out of the water!  The fish back home in our lakes don’t do that!”

  • “Isn’t it weird that we are sleeping outside in a tent on the ground instead of inside our house on a bed?!”

    AFTER THE EXPERIENCE: Memory provides the opportunity to engage within ourselves as well as with others while celebrating one’s life and enhancing pride and self-esteem.  Because we can never go through an experience exactly the same way again, we enjoy remembering.  As opposed to a line of questioning or interrogation, your casual initiation of your child’s experience can spark her to want to discuss it further, bring up another related event, and/or initiate conversation about her memory of her own experience with others.

    Examples:

  • “Even though you went skiing a few days ago, it’s fun to talk about what happened with other people, like when you went down that hill super-fast, because you get to think about it again and again.”

  • “I like to remember when you were going down the log flume.  You were so scared, but afterwards you weren’t scared anymore!  Next time if you go down the log flume again, you won’t be scared.”

  • “Remember the tire swing that was hanging from the huge tree by the lake at Aunt Susan’s house?  I am sure you wish that we had one, huh?”

  • “I know that Grandma wishes that she could have gone to Disney with us.  So, if you share your experiences by telling her what you did, Grandma will feel like she went to Disney also.”

TRY THIS FREE CONVERSATION STARTER!

To further help your child, you can make abstract experiences like summer vacation more concrete and tangible with my FREE “CONVERSATION GIFT” TEMPLATE. Visual and tactile objects help people with autism to understand and remember. Souvenirs (either purchased or found in nature), photographs, or drawings are artifacts of what the child did and saw. They allow the child to physically refer to, bring, show, and share his memories.  Memories are the greatest gifts to both give and receive, and people with autism will have an easier time to physically give this “gift” to others.

HOW TO USE THE ‘CONVERSATION GIFT’ TEMPLATE:

-Print the “Conversation Gift” and help your child fill in the blanks.  You can say something general to introduce and stimulate conversation like, “I had such a nice time at the lake.” 

 -Either have your child choose a preferred person, or you choose someone who is open and approachable for your child to initiate a conversation.  For example, “When you see Uncle Bob, you can tell him about your trip to the lake.”

 -Help your child think about that person’s interests, background, occupation, etc. to try to tie in your child’s experiences.  You can say, “Uncle Bob will want to hear about your trip to the lake because he likes the outdoors and animals.” Another option is to be more general and fill in “…because I know that he/she wants to hear all about my vacation.”

 -Look at the artifacts your child collected. For example, perhaps you photographed a mother turtle with her baby turtles sitting on a log.  It may be that your child is able to make an initiating statement by recalling your statements and explanations at the time in which he experienced the turtles.  If not, you can stimulate your child’s initiation by saying something like, “This was so interesting because this is the first time you and I have ever seen a mother turtle with her baby turtles.  When you see Uncle Bob you can tell him about this.  Write down something over here that you would like to say to Uncle Bob about the turtles.”

-To help further the intended conversation, help your child think of a question to ask the conversational partner.  See below for a few examples.  When your child encounters this conversational partner, he can then present this “Conversation Gift” and refer back to the ‘Conversation Starter’ he wrote in order to begin the conversation.  Afterward, the conversational partner will keep this “Conversational Gift” along with the artifact.  Seeing this “Conversation Gift” displayed within the conversational partner’s home may spark your child to initiate conversation again. 

For example…

MY CONVERSATION GIFT FOR: Uncle Bob BECAUSE I KNOW THAT he likes the outdoors and animals.

TITLE:  MY SUMMER VACATION AT the lake

ARTIFACT:  Photograph of turtles your child saw at the lake

CONVERSATION STARTER:  “I saw a mother turtle with her baby turtles sitting on this log.  Uncle Bob, have you ever seen a mother turtle with her baby turtles before?”

—————————————
Other examples…

MY CONVERSATION GIFT FOR: My next-door-neighbor, Sarah, BECAUSE I KNOW THAT she lives in New Jersey just like I do.

TITLE:  MY SUMMER VACATION AT Aruba

ARTIFACT:  Granules of Aruba’s sand in a plastic bag alongside a drawing of the white sand in New Jersey

CONVERSATION STARTER:  “The beach in Aruba has pink sand, but New Jersey has white sand.  Sarah, did you know that beaches have different color sand?”

—————————————
For a child with limited language…

MY CONVERSATION GIFT FOR: Grandpa BECAUSE I KNOW THAT Grandpa wants to hear all about my vacation

TITLE:  MY SUMMER VACATION AT Disney

ARTIFACT:  Mickey Mouse necklace

CONVERSATION STARTER:  “I saw Mickey Mouse in Disney.  Grandpa, do you like Mickey?”

Over time, your child will learn the value of sharing memories with others through initiating conversation as he/she creates a bridge to the past and a connection to the present.

-KKS

>>DOWNLOAD YOUR CHILD’S FREE “CONVERSATION GIFT” TEMPLATE HERE<<

Advertisements

4 Ways to Help People with Autism Improve Eye Contact

Standard

eyes
Though it is unnatural for some people with autism, we should encourage and expect eye contact from them.  Eye contact is crucial as all other social interactions stem from it.  It sets the basic social foundation to ensure attention to the conversation or interaction.  Eye contact signals that the person is present, engaged, and connected with others because our face – especially our eyes – embodies who we are as a person.

Research shows that most communication is expressed nonverbally through facial expressions and body language. While it is true that the spoken word is important, true feelings and intentions can only be seen when one looks at another’s face and body.  Nonverbal communication enhances, clarifies, and reinforces the spoken word and deeply impacts social development.

Many people with autism do make eye contact, but it may be fleeting or occur at inappropriate times. Below are four ways to help your child improve eye contact.  The frequency, duration, and under which circumstances will determine which methods will be best for you to utilize.

These INDIRECT METHODS stimulate active thought processes to occur:

Indirect verbal methods

Explain that eye contact is necessary:
“I can’t see your eyes.”
“I want to see your eyes.”
“I can’t answer you because I don’t see your eyes.”
“I’m over here.”
“You can’t see my face, so you don’t know how I feel.”

Give vague commands using vague, general terms to incite confusion and possible eye contact for clarification:
“Put it over by that.”
“Bring something there.”
“Close this over here, please.”

As you would in any circumstance where you are not aware of being personally addressed, withhold your response, or cue with:
“Who are you talking with?  Are you talking with someone over there?”
“I guess you’re not talking with me because you’re not looking at me.”

Indirect nonverbal methods

Physically bring the child toward you in close proximity.

Allure the child to catch her eye with outrageous paraphernalia on your head or face (e.g., a clown nose, fake mustache, huge sunglasses, a weird wig).  Along with this very instance, it is possible that in the future she will might look at you again to assess whether you are wearing other odd items.  This method should be used sparingly because it is highly unnatural and unreasonable to constantly repeat.

DIRECT METHODS are explicit, passive, and do not require active thought processes:

Direct verbal methods

Directly tell or indicate your child to make eye contact with you. For example, call his name with an expectant intonation in your voice:
“Look at me.”
“Look at my eyes.”
“You have to look at me if you want me to talk with you.”

Go toward her eyes and say:
“Now I can see your eyes, and you can see my eyes.”
*This method should be used with caution because the adult, as opposed to the child, is the one making the effort to do this action.

Direct nonverbal method
Physically move a desired item, or simply your finger, from his eyes toward your eyes.

Whichever method above that you utilize, be sure to encourage, acknowledge and reward your child for looking at you. Do things like widen your eyes, smile, and praise such as, “I’m glad you are looking at me” or “Oh, good! Now I can see your eyes.” The more your child sees the nonverbal cues which dominate social interactions, the stronger social bonds will be with others.

-KKS

5 Essential Steps to Prepare People with Autism for Effective Conversation – as Taught by “I Can Have Conversations With You!™”

Standard

Conversation can be extraordinarily challenging for people with autism due to all of its social, logical, and language requisites which occur before and after one opens his or her mouth to speak.  As a speech-language pathologist, I work with people of all ages who have autism. After 10+ years of development, I have created a specialized teaching method and a clinically effective system that helps people with autism navigate each facet of conversation successfully in my iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” (www.iCanForAutism.com). This is the first article in a 4-part series that describes how each segment of the app helps your child have better conversations while helping you take on your child’s mindset in order to better communicate with her or him.

Segment #1: “Pre-Conversation Concepts”

Conversations begin when an individual becomes alert and aware of a change in the social environment.  People with autism often have difficulty noticing a change in their environment which is different, interesting, special, unusual, confusing, weird, new, and so on. “I Can Have Conversations With You” begins each conversation module with a video of people experiencing these changes.  Using a combination of words, facial expressions, gestures, and other body language, the conversational partners talk about a particular topic.  After watching the video, the Pre-Conversation Concepts questions make the learner alert and aware of the conversational situation through the following steps:

    1. Conversational partners and their relationships: The first step to set up the framework for conversation is to know who the conversational partners are and their relationship with one another.  People with autism, for example, sometimes overgeneralize the features of a person, leading to an inaccurate perception.  So, the person with autism, especially a child, might automatically label any adult male as “Dad” or any adult woman as “Mrs. Smith, a teacher”.
      who
    2. Orientation to place and time: After obtaining correct orientation to person, “I Can Have Conversations With You!” then directs the learner to orient to place and time – a common difficulty.  The learner will identify where the conversational partners are having this conversation (which usually corresponds to their relationship) and if they are talking about present, past, or future events.
    3. Eye contact: As people with autism tend to focus more on distractors rather than the targets, “I Can Have Conversations With You!” displays interactive tappable arrows which direct the learner’s attention appropriately.  Observing eye contact between the conversational partners alerts the learner that communication will occur and binds their social connection.
      arrows
    4. Physical feelings and mental emotions: Now that the learner is focused on the conversational partner’s eyes, “I Can Have Conversations With You!” uses boxes around their faces to highlight their facial expressions and body language.
    5. Intentions and Motivations: People with autism tend to rely on just any words they can think of which are similar to the conversational situation, often leading to a mismatch. “I Can Have Conversations With You!” teaches the learner to analyze the content of what the conversational partners want to say and why they want to say it, then matching the appropriate words.

See how a person with autism learns “Pre-Conversation Concepts” in my app video tour here: https://youtu.be/63RIhdBxoP0

Like never before in an autism app, “I Can Have Conversations With You!” provides reliable methods and strategies to approach conversation.  Please share this with families you know whose child struggles with conversation. Stay tuned for the next article in this series, ‘Conversational Connectors’, to understand how my app teaches the learner to match appropriate words with intentions.

-KKS

Sowing the Seeds of Communication for People with Autism

Standard

364216197_27219b24e2

“…everything that human beings say or do (including nothing) is noticed by others and has meaning to them. Consequently, every social situation involves communication.
~ Richard W. Dillman, Chair of Communications at Mcdaniel College, Author

Our need and desire to communicate with others is enormous. It’s triggered by the interaction between events in our surroundings and how our mind and body interpret such experiences. Given “homeostasis”, or a relatively stable basis within the social environment, communication starts when there is a disruption or a change of which we are alert, aware, and engaged.

Since some people with autism are “under-responsive” as they have difficulty with perception of their physical feelings or physical senses (e.g., thirst, hunger, pain, smell, sight) and mental emotions (e.g., sadness, jealousy, fear, surprise), they appear quiet, passive, or withdrawn. In addition to having this difficulty detecting sensory input within themselves, they might not automatically monitor the stimuli within their surroundings.  They might not always be alert to anticipate or notice a change in the homeostasis of their environment which could become different, interesting, special, unusual, confusing, weird, new, and so on.

Because of this difficulty of alertness combined with trouble manipulating language, some people with autism may not be aware to respond or act by communicating through verbal (language and words) and nonverbal (facial expressions, gestures) means to regulate their environment and return to homeostasis.

We can make it easier for them to become alert of surrounding events in order to identify a change in homeostasis. The most effective way to capture their attention is by using one of or a combination of the following methods:

  • Alter your tone of voice in different ways (e.g., shouting, calling, whispering)

  • Make sudden vocal sounds (e.g., gasps, one-word interjections such as “Wow!”, “Ooops!”; “Uh-oh!”)

  • Exaggerate facial expressions, body language, and/or gestures

  • Guide their attention with your pointer finger

  • Say ‘observant’ words (e.g., “Look at that!”; “Listen to this!”; “Smell this!”)

  • Sensationalize by using descriptor words (e.g., “yummy”; “stinky”; “bumpy”)

  • Sabotage their environment (e.g., Direct the person to go to a shelf to get something that does not exist or to unscrew a lid that has been purposefully made closed tightly.)

  • Use ridiculousness (e.g., Make purposeful mistakes, like while coloring along with the person, color the sun green or, after a request for an item, give him or her a wrong item)

  • Be in close proximity and use touch or gentle guidance to direct her or his attention

  • Obtain eye contact by directing your fingers from his or her eyes to your eyes or holding up the desired or interesting item to your eyes.

Awareness is a response that requires both appropriate interpretation and language to attach to the stimulus.  We might have to help the person understand the stimulus and assign or model the words, including those of physical feelings (e.g., pain, hunger, dizziness) and emotional/mental feelings in order to come to a resolution of homeostasis.

Examples of combining alertness with awareness:

  • We can help the person with autism become alert through the physical sense of smell of cookies baking by sniffing and licking our lips.  Then, we can help the person become aware by modeling and asking for imitation, “You say, ‘Mmm…the cookies smell delicious!’”

  • We can help the person with autism become alert through the emotional sense by pointing to someone nearby who is crying and say, “Look at that girl.  Give her a hug and say, ‘Don’t be sad.  Everything will be ok.’”

  • After the child was spinning around, the mother can model for the child, “Tell me, ‘Mom, I feel dizzy.  I want to sit down.’”

Conversely, some people with autism are “over-responsive” and notice the slightest homeostatic change because they are overly sensitive to stimuli.  Thoughts that should be silent come out verbally through talking too much about unimportant details, impulsively making statements, or asking too many questions as they are unable to deduce or reason by themselves.

For example, while riding in his mother’s car at the very moment that the rain just stopped, a child notices a woman walking on the sidewalk with her umbrella still opened.  He asks his mother why the woman did not close her umbrella yet, but before his mother had a chance to answer, he rolls down the window and calls out, “Hey!  You have to close your umbrella because it’s not raining anymore!”

Furthermore, at times, the accuracy, sensitivity, and appropriateness of their interpretations, perceptions, and reactions might be off-base to some degree. We can help by encouraging more self-thought through using one of or a combination of the following methods: 

  • Halt him/her from being overly wordy (e.g., “Wait a minute.  Do you think that person knows…?”; “What do you think that person is thinking?”)

  • Re-direct his/her focus and thought pattern (e.g., “That’s not very important right now.  This is what you need to look at and think about…”)

  • Repeat the same pat response to constant questions (e.g., “What do you think”)

To conclude, some people with autism can be both over- and under-responsive at different times. Being cognizant of this, our job is to help regulate this balance back to homeostasis by either pointing out what the person did not respond to or suppressing what has been over-responded to, depending on each situation.  When a person with autism becomes alert to changes in homeostasis and aware of the resolution, appropriate communication has occurred, leading to stronger social relationships.

-KKS

photo credit: Secrets of the Sun

Acknowledgment and Appreciation During Autism Awareness Month

Standard

logo-Apr2Each of us has our respective abilities which come naturally, and we also experience challenges to continuously work on. One person’s strength may be someone else’s struggle and vice versa, so we all work together to complement one another and create the best outcomes possible. While it is true that people with autism often need everyone’s support to navigate through their unique challenges, they simultaneously have valuable abilities to contribute to society which sometimes are not acknowledged.

Some people with autism are very visual and attend to detail, so they welcome tasks that others might find tedious such as pattern recognition or identifying minor irregularities. Along with their good auditory and/or visual memory, some are very systematic and skilled in mechanics such as math, music, or puzzles. Some detail-oriented people with autism tend to have deep knowledge in areas of their interest, making them the “go-to” person for information.

Because some people with autism tend to be logical rather emotional, they advantageously can better make rational decisions. Further, these people communicate directly and honestly and are loyal to anyone who will listen to them without judgement. Given that some with autism are very early readers, they serve as good role models by encouraging others to read or electing to read to non-readers.

Acknowledgment and appreciation of the unique abilities of people with autism advances our society for the benefit of all during Autism Awareness Month…and always.

-KKS

For People with Autism, Communication = Conversation

Standard

ConversationWhile there are slight variations of its exact definition, “conversation” is essentially verbal (language or words) or nonverbal (gestures, facial expressions) communication between two or more people for the purpose of establishing and maintaining social relations. Conversation (aka “discussion” or “dialogue”) is a way to exchange different ideas, points of view, beliefs, knowledge, intents, desires, feelings, and so forth.  Conversation can also occur within oneself while thinking.

The dynamics of conversation can vary.  It can be as short as a pair of exchanges between two conversational partners or extend into multiple rounds of back-and-forth comments with several partners.  Even non-verbal exchanges (e.g., a head nod, written words, body gestures) are considered conversation.  Conversations can revolve around a single topic or branch off and lead into different topics.  These topics can be based on things occurring in-view at that moment or out-of-view like relating a past event.

Especially nowadays, given multiple modes of communication like texting, instant messaging, email, social media, or the phone, we are inundated with opportunities and are expected to have more effective conversations. In all cases, conversation utilizes language with other people in order to bring us together into each other’s worlds with the purpose of building stronger social relationships.

At the heart of autism are difficulties with social relations and language, and therefore, difficulties with having conversations.  Not every person with autism is able to meet these highly specific criteria of conventional conversation. A broader definition of conversation must be considered; otherwise, many people with autism may never truly be accepted as part of the social world.

Thus, every communicative interaction of a person with autism must be considered conversational. This means that exchanges such as verbal or nonverbal rituals, routines, greetings, polite markers, and instructions should be considered conversation, even though these might not be the richest or most engaging forms. Some people with autism are able to engage in some form of “typical” conversation; however, all facets may not exist or be adequate or accurate such as:

  • initiating/maintaining/ending a conversation
  • the ability to rephrase (using other words to clarify)
  • intonation (appropriate tone of voice)
  • topic choice of interest to the listener
  • maxims (e.g., talking too much/too little; providing relevant, on-topic contributions)
  • proxemics (e.g., standing too close to the listener)

In any case, simply because he or she is unable to have perfect or typical conversations does not invalidate the fact that one occurred.

Given specialized instruction for both verbal and nonverbal communication, people with autism will continually develop and improve social relationships. Valuing his or her ongoing contributions as a member of society, our role is to acknowledge, accept, reinforce, and help to improve all attempts at conversation.

-KKS

P.S.: Upcoming articles will address the communication of people with autism as well as methods that families can use to improve conversations and support stronger relationships. Stay tuned!

Tablets – The new way to help people with autism to commmunicate

Standard

boy-touching-tablet
How increasingly reliant we’ve become on our digital gadgets—our cell phones, iPods, laptops, Fitbits, and countless other portable innovations!

On touchscreen devices, apps serve many important and convenient purposes for all of us, all at the tap or swipe of a finger.  For people in the special needs community – and especially children with autism – tablets are an affordable, modern, and highly effective way to learn and improve social communication as well as build other skills in an attention-grabbing, enjoyable manner.

As opposed to desktop computers or laptops, the physical aspect of tablets are more “touchable” and, therefore, more “usable” for people with autism.  Considering some children with autism have upper body weakness, the tablet’s light weight and smaller size allows the child to easily carry and transport it.  For children with fine motor deficits or deficits of eye-hand coordination, touch-screen technology eliminates the frustrating manipulation of the traditional mouse or finger-operated mouse pad.

Further, directly touching the tablet’s screen is personal as nothing comes between the child and his or her activity on the screen.  So, the touch-screen serves as an extension of the child himself or herself, making the experience more meaningful to the individual.  Protective covers for tablets make them more durable, and thanks to the auto-rotation feature of the screen’s content, the child is free to use the tablet in various environments and positions.

Unlike a laptop’s clamshell keyboard or a desktop’s disconnected keyboard, tablets have a built-in virtual keyboard which makes them more efficient and less bulky.  If a physical keyboard is desired, most tablets offer a Bluetooth-enabled physical keyboard option.   Voice-activated text on the tablet eliminates the need for typing altogether.  Conversely, for those who are nonverbal and unable to speak with their voices, tablets can serve as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices for voice output.

Since tablets are becoming an increasingly larger segment of the home computer market and within schools (see footnotes 1, 2), tablet technology is constantly being updated along with new features, and a vast universe of useful apps continue to be developed.  Moreover, some computers are underpowered and/or sluggish with a short battery life as opposed to tablets.  So, tablets are the more convenient choice for use during long periods of time such as travel or a work or school day.

Multi-faceted, higher-level abstract skills like communication and language are more easily learned when broken down into more understandable, concrete parts.  Children with autism gravitate toward the technology and screens of tablets because they can actually see and experience how these parts of communication and language work together. The tablet is an ideal and invaluable tool as some research has suggested that children with autism are naturally more inclined for technology and are better able to learn and imitate the communication skills they see on the screen through videos as opposed to real-life models.(see footnote 3)

Children’s media is increasingly migrating from the TV to the tablet.(see footnote 4) However, using the tablet as a distraction or simply for the child to entertain himself or herself could lead the child with autism into further social isolation.  Always seeking the greatest socialization possible, the most effective use of the tablet for children with autism is as an empowering tool to help them learn crucial life skills, especially communication.  Parents’ choice of quality tablet apps along with their encouragement and interaction with their children equals the best learning situation.  Apps that target social communication teach the child critical skills such as understanding and expressing emotions as well as asking and answering appropriate questions.

Tablets are part of everyday life for many children as technology is becoming more affordable and common in both homes and schools.  While nothing can or should replace basic human interpersonal activity, technology provides a unique opportunity to help people with autism learn how to communicate in a way that otherwise might not be as productive. Children with autism will be naturally motivated to consistently utilize the tablet as it is inherently rewarding due to its usability.  As such, tablets are a practical, captivating way for people with autism to gain more independence to communicate.    All parents, particularly parents of children with autism, are encouraged to use stimulating apps as their children will have a natural motivation and continued desire to learn from them.

-KKS

Learn more through these references:

Footnotes:

  1. http://www.gfk.com/news-and-events/press-room/press-releases/Pages/IT-IFA-2014-en.aspx   

  2. http://thegazette.com/2012/02/17/touch-screen-tablets-help-connect-autistic-kids-with-their-families-and-world/#u46DMWdwzDB0u47g.99

  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11261466

  4. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/09/tech/innovation/autism-tablet-apps/