When our son was first diagnosed with autism, speech therapy was the very first therapy we approached. We began our autism journey in the school system so we took what was offered to us. We were given two thirty minute sessions a week; one of those sessions was group therapy and one was one-on-one.
The therapy just didn’t seem to be having much of an impact and we felt like the biggest reason was that it simply wasn’t enough. We couldn’t afford to supplement with private therapy but we knew we needed more help in this area. Thankfully, there are many things you can do at home to get speech therapy on a shoestring budget.
pssst…Before we get started, a little disclaimer: I am not a therapist nor do I pretend to be. I’m just a mom who has learned a lot.
Why Speech Matters
At risk of stating the obvious, speech is a really important part of human interaction making speech therapy a critical piece of the autism puzzle for a few reasons…
1. Communication is a huge challenge for kids on the spectrum; it is a core criteria for diagnosis
2. Communication is necessary for social interactions
3. Communication is necessary for independence
Communication is not just words. People used to look at my boys and say, “well, they’re verbal so they must be high functioning…” but I have to remind them that being “verbal” does not necessarily say much about their ability to communicate effectively. For the first year or so after diagnosis, our oldest child’s language was about 80% echoloclic. While echololia can be a great jumping off point, it does not translate into effective communication. How effective is it if you ask “how was your day?” and your child recites back half an episode of Blue’s Clues to you?
Tips for Working on Speech
- Remember your child learns to speak from being immersed in your home language.
- Expose your child to GREAT language – focus on unabridged children’s classics and you can’t go wrong. Read aloud, read aloud, and read aloud some more! You can also play audio books written by brilliant authors and read by talented performers.
- Watch how you speak. Speak clearly and in full sentences. Slow down so your child can hear the full words we’re saying and not just the beginning of the words.
- Emphasize (even over-emphasize) with emotion; avoid sounding monotone.
- Use inflection in your voice and specific action words.
- Avoid generalities and over-describing what your child is doing. You want the language to sound as natural as possible because that’s what we want the child to mimic.
- Use discretion and work with a therapist experienced and familiar with AUTISM. It does not help you if she’s got 20 years experience…with stroke victims. Even if they work in the school system, the core of their students could be articulation cases and she might not work much on things more specific to autism, like inference.
The Skills of Language
When working at home (as well as when writing your IEP if you choose to get speech through the school system), it’s important to focus your goals on the four key language skills.
- clarity of speech/pronunciation/articulation
- sentence length
- conversational give-and-take
Take some notes and evaluate where your child is at in these areas and where he needs the most help. Start there. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, your child will be at a variety of levels in each of the following categories.
Expose your child to as many words as possible – by reading. Reading aloud to your child nurtures relationship while exposing him to great language but audiobooks certainly “count” as a read-aloud, too. It’s important not to water language down and read too much twaddle; read and play high-quality unabridged living books a little above his level.
Clarity of Speech/Pronunciation/Articulation
This is where slowing down is really important. Make eye contact. Let him see your mouth when you speak. If he mispronounces a word, parrot back the correct pronunciation instead of a negative correction.
Child: “It’s my birf-day today!”
Parent: “No, hunny, say BIRTH-DAY.”
This discredits his attempt at communication and instead of focusing on him expressing language, you’re nitpicking. It will get daunting for him, especially if he really struggles here, to correct every little mis-clarity of speech. Wouldn’t you hate being corrected all day?
Child: “It’s my birf-day today!”
Parent: “That’s right, it’s your BIRTH-DAY today, Johnny!”
This keeps the focus on the context which is the core of what we’re looking for anyway. It connects you through communication which helps with relationship which will make him want to talk more. However, he’s still hearing the proper pronunciation of the word.
When our son was first diagnosed, communication was next to impossible for him. He would stand at the refrigerator and cry because he wanted juice. Ben knew how to say juice. He was able to say juice. But he was not able to plug it in at the appropriate time to get what he wanted.
We would walk up behind him and feed him the words. In the beginning, it was just: “juice?” and then we’d encourage and motivate him by handing him the juice teaching him that language = power. Then we worked up to short sentences: “Juice mom” and finally longer sentences: “Can I have juice?”
Notice that we worked on lengthening sentences with a very powerful motivator that was just out of his reach. If your child can just go and get the thing himself, he has no reason to request it. Find what motivates him naturally – his favorite toy for example – and put it in a place where he will need to stretch himself a little to get it. We have to teach our kids that language = power or there will be very little desire for them to produce language. The more they realize they can use language to their advantage, the more language you will see.
Now we work on manners and try to get as many words as possible out of him. We have a saying in our house: “Try it again.” We use it when the boys express themselves in an inappropriate way (like forgetting their manners) or when we’re not getting the desired speech out of them. This little phrase has worked wonders at lengthening our sentences. It works because they were first taught what to say. You cannot do Step 2 if they don’t have a hold of Step 1. It’s not fair and it doesn’t make any sense.
He will still get lazy in his language some days (it’s hard work!) and walk up to me, set his cup in front of me and either say “juice” or nothing at all. I will now look at him, smile, and say “try it again.” He is usually able to say “Can I have some juice, please, mom?” I will only say “try it again” one – maybe two – times to keep him from frustration. Language is supposed to be a good thing. You want to push your child just outside his comfort zone, not off the cliff.
The best way we’ve found to work on this is on their terms, in their world. Our day is full of random facts about Lego Star Wars and Spiderman and Lemurs and tornadoes. One thing about kids on the spectrum is they tend to have a limited interest in what they want to talk about and it’s usually not what you want to talk about! That’s okay – this is a great avenue for building give and take instead of numbly replying “oh yeah?” work to engage with them to create a give-and-take conversation.
Child: “Lemurs live in the rainforest”
Parent: “That’s right. Do you know what country they live in?”
Parent: “That’s right. Would you like to go to Madagascar one day?”
Continue to build on this and try to focus your questions on personal information instead of facts; we want language to be as relational as possible because that is how it naturally is.
Nothing can replace purposeful, goal-directed speech therapy, sought out either in cooperation with a specialized therapist or tied into an in-home therapy like The Son-Rise Program®, but working with your child at home is also a must. The best kind of therapy is the one woven into the fabrics of your everyday life.