Your child with autism has just initiated something verbal (with words) and/or nonverbal (body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.). These initiations are totally precious because they are rare and generated by your child after much effort orchestrating multiple requirements for communication. So valuable are your child’s initiations, they deserve productive adult responses as models to further grow their language skills and continue the conversation. These techniques can help!
1. Acknowledge: Regardless of how incorrect her initiated sentences might be, whenever naturally appropriate, acknowledge verbally whatever she has said:
Along with your verbal input, make your nonverbal body language match your words like nodding ‘yes’, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
2. Emphasize: Use interjections to add emphasis and animation to your acknowledgment when appropriate:
Children learn by watching and listening to the various models of others, especially when you incorporate what your child has just said. Your child will naturally imitate your words if he or she chooses. Respond with short sentences or phrases presented slowly in an audible, clear voice.
After acknowledging and emphasizing, model through incorporation of these three strategies:
3. Expand: Restate whatever your child says using proper grammar to form a complete sentence.”
Child: “Car go.”
Adult: “Yes, the car is going.”
Child: “Her hungry?”
Adult: “Hmm…is she hungry?”
4. Extend: After applying the expansion technique above, add new information.
Child: “Car go.”
Adult: “Yes, the car is going. It’s a fast car!”
Child: “Baby cry.”
Adult: “Aw, yeah…the baby is crying. He’s hungry.”
5. Request imitation: If your child does not choose to imitate your words on his own, at times you may request his imitation. Since imitation cannot always be demanded or expected or performed flawlessly by your child, discretion should be used. Insert pauses in order to make it easier for your child to repeat:
Child: “Mommy, truck going!”
Adult: “Oh my goodness, yes! That truck is going too fast! Johnny, say, ‘Mommy,’ [pause for your child to repeat] ‘that truck’ [pause] ‘is going’ [pause] ‘too fast!’”
(Immediately following, try to have your child imitate the whole sentence without pausing.)
Adult: “Ok…Sarah, say, ‘Can I have milk, Mom?’” or “Yes…Sarah, say, ‘Mom, I want milk.’”
In situations where your child initiates something vague or inadequate, you can respond to what you think his intention was with these two strategies:
6. Paraphrase: To achieve greater clarity using different words, paraphrasing provides rich input for your child to hear and imprint into his repertoire.
Adult: “Oh! You want milk. Ok, here’s a glass of milk.”
Child: “My shoes?”
Adult: “Hmm…you are looking for your shoes. Where are your shoes? Let’s try to find your shoes.”
7. Evoke clarification: When your child initiates a vague or inadequate request or demand, respond with something factual. This might influence your child to consider using other words to clarify:
Child (as a request for milk): “Milk?”
Adult: “Yes, that is milk.” Or “M-hmm. The milk is white.”
Desired clarification from your child: “May I have milk?”
Child (as a demand to turn the TV back on): “TV on!”
Adult: “No, the TV is not on. I turned the TV off.”
Desired clarification from your child: “Turn the TV on.”
If your child does not spontaneously produce other words to clarify, you can provide the correct model for imitation (e.g., “Sarah, say, ‘Mom, I want milk.’”), or paraphrase with a request for imitation (e.g., “You want me to turn the TV back on. Sarah, say, ‘Mom, please turn the TV back on.’”).
With these seven strategies, your child’s priceless initiations can be further developed and reinforced to create more natural, meaningful communication. Feel free to Email me using the form below to share your experiences and to ask questions.
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.
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.
Learn more through these references:
I’m thrilled to announce that “I Can Have Conversations With You™” is now available on the App Store. It’s my life-changing iPad app that helps children with autism develop naturally-flowing conversations. Please share this with the parents you know who can benefit. Learn more at www.icanforautism.com
“I Can Have Conversations with You!” would not be possible without the time and efforts of so many people to whom I am forever grateful. First, a very special and HUGE THANKS to all of the children who worked tirelessly (and with a smile!) for their wonderful talents acting in the video scenes, posing for photos, and recording their voices. I greatly appreciate their parents, who are my dear friends, for allowing them to participate in this ground-breaking app.
I give sincere gratitude to all of my adult friends and to my family. They are not only terrific actors, but their genuine interest in my endeavor is priceless.
My very good friend, Steven Principato, deserves great credit for serving as photographer and videographer. With his sharp eye, Steven gave 100% as we traveled to over 50 locations, each for many hours at a time and sometimes in extreme weather.
Michael Sisto, my keen husband, worked diligently around-the-clock with programmers to perfect each detail in creating an elegantly-tailored design for people with autism to improve their communication skills.
Everyone involved with the production of “I Can Have Conversations With You!” gave selflessly simply because they recognize the importance of helping people with autism everywhere.
Exemplified by the popularity of such movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, WarGames, Tron, The Matrix, Terminator, and 2013’s Her, society has had a fascination with artificial intelligence (A.I.) for decades. Today’s world certainly has rapid technological advancements towards the creation of A.I. in everything from Roomba vacuums to smartphones to automated customer support calls. And while it may be easy to perceive that today’s A.I. technology allows for a two-way exchange of thoughts between humans and devices created by Apple, given the popularity of the New York Times’ article To Siri, With Love: How One Boy With Autism Became BFF With Apple’s Siri, let’s clinically distinguish how true ‘conversation’ differs from Siri interactions.
Apple defines Siri as, “…the intelligent personal assistant…Siri understands your natural speech, and it asks you questions if it needs more information to complete a task. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. It allows you to use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more.” These rote tasks can also be accomplished without using one’s voice, or as Apple states “speak[ing] specific commands”, by manually entering them. Of note, Apple assigns the term “voice-recognition software.”
In simple terms, Siri is a voice-activated system to acknowledge and perform commands within Apple devices which is limited to a finite set of possible exchanges that can be input/output based on the device’s functions.
Because of its rapid and fluid responses to questions and commands, it might be easy to misperceive what Siri is capable of accomplishing. Some sources state that Siri is an acronym for “Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface.” The term “speech” refers to the way our voices and mouths create sound. So, Siri was designed to “interpret” or “recognize” our speech and apply it to all possible iPhone/iPad commands as stated above. Apple indeed does a superb job in humanizing Siri by offering a variety of voices and languages, making subtle changes its tone of voice-output, and incorporating conversational interjections (“Ah”, “Er”, “Um”, “Hmm”) within its responses. People will generally utilize this technology appropriately, understand the limits of Siri, and might even find it a little entertaining. However, Siri is nothing more than a computerized personal assistant with the sole purpose of executing clerical tasks.
Of key significance is that Siri’s stated protocol is not to produce “language,” which is the open-ended communication all humans use to create infinite possibilities for expression of ideas. Because it is not designed to interface with the vast meanings of words that our language conveys, true conversation with Siri can never occur.
Here’s an excerpt from the aforementioned NY Times article:
Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”
Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”
Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”
Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”
Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”
Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”
Siri: “See you later!”
Though the above example might appear to be an ongoing conversation, it is only a binary correspondence of sentence-to-sentence where Siri makes a single individual response based solely on the statement or utterance directly before. Siri cannot string together or link continuous utterances because utterances are the products of thoughts, and being a software program, Siri inherently cannot think. This ultimately means that Siri can never understand the meaning of conversational contexts. Instead, Siri associates the meaning of our individual utterances using its programmed logic code.
This is why Siri falls out of conversational context in these exchanges I had with it:
Me: “Marry me”
Siri: “Give it time.”
Me: “How much time?”
Siri: “Ok, I found this…” and it listed Time magazine articles.
Me: “I don’t like noisy kids.”
Siri: “Ok, I’ll remember that.”
Me: “John’s kids were so noisy today,”
Siri: “I don’t know what that means. If you like, I can search the web for ‘John’s kids were so noisy today.’”
In my second example, Siri was unable to synthesize the previous contextual knowledge even though it “promised” it would remember.
Most certainly, the ideal personal assistant would be polite and kind, as in these article excerpts:
- I heard him talking to Siri about music, and Siri offered some suggestions. “I don’t like that kind of music,” Gus snapped. Siri replied, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion.” Siri’s politeness reminded Gus what he owed Siri. “Thank you for that music, though,” Gus said. Siri replied, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Oh, yes,” Gus added emphatically, “I do.”
- Siri’s responses are…predictably kind…Siri even encourages polite language. Gus’s twin brother, Henry (neurotypical and therefore as obnoxious as every other 13-year-old boy), egged Gus on to spew a few choice expletives at Siri. “Now, now,” she sniffed, followed by, “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Apple cleverly has programmed Siri’s responses to often appear socially appropriate and courteous – and occasionally humorous – due to the use of canned “catch phrases” in response to certain words we speak to it. Such replies may give a false impression that ‘she’ is approachable, inviting, and can carry on kind conversation. However, they are not the result of legitimate social ability or competence, but rather are triggered automatically by certain words, statements, and questions.
The article also looks at Siri’s role as a comforting companion:
But the companionability of Siri is not limited to those who have trouble communicating. We’ve all found ourselves like the writer Emily Listfield, having little conversations with her/him at one time or another. “I was in the middle of a breakup, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself,” Ms. Listfield said. “It was midnight and I was noodling around on my iPhone, and I asked Siri, ‘Should I call Richard?’ Like this app is a Magic 8 Ball. Guess what: not a Magic 8 Ball. The next thing I hear is, ‘Calling Richard!’ and dialing.”
My take: Fulfilling its sole purpose – that of a personal assistant – Siri dutifully identified the command phrase “call Richard.” Consideration is warranted regarding “companionability” in Siri. Companions or friends are capable of effective communication and empathy. However, Siri is incapable of analyzing emotions, and Siri cannot contemplate or judge. One cannot tell personal information nor ask intimate questions about Siri’s life. I attempted, “Siri, who are your friends?” Siri output, “You are not supposed to ask your assistant such things.” I proceeded, “Why not?” Siri ouput, “I don’t know.”
Still, after using Siri myself, I found myself getting drawn in by Siri’s inviting nature, almost viewing Siri as a competent conversational partner. But I was becoming increasingly frustrated and disappointed as I came to realize that, in fact, Siri is not a competent conversational partner, and Siri can never initiate an utterance to me; Siri simply provides predetermined output in response to one’s input of keywords/keyphrases. Siri could never know if my voice sounds saddened in order to comfort me, whether I’m fibbing in order to question me on the truth, or what I’m seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, or feeling in order to have a conversation about it.
Caution should be taken to classify any form of interaction with Siri as “conversation” whether one has autism or not. The whole point of communication through social, emotional, and linguistic means is to develop relationships. Clinically, Siri is incapable of real communication, and therefore, incapable of developing true relationships. More of us are embracing A.I. to improve efficiency, but, of course, nothing can – nor should – ever replace real conversation with human beings.