ShareThis blog was originally posted on the saiconnection’s website. You can read the original here. 

Atharva is a typically developing 5 year old. He joined us for the Christmas Carnival on the 22nd of December. I watched him painting, his creative talent stood out.

As I dabbled with the paints, I found an interesting heart shaped sponge brush. I dipped it into the palette which already had red and green paint and printed little hearts. Atharva studied my actions intently. I commented casually on how good the hearts looked. He looked up at me and then continued to watch what I was doing.

He took me by surprise when he said, “I can do it better than you.”

“Show me.” I challenged, smiling.

He came across and took the brush from me. Instead of dipping the brush in the paint, as I was doing, he dipped another brush in the red paint and applied the paint straight to the sponge. And Voila! He proceeded to make pure red, perfectly shaped hearts! “See?” He said, confidently. I hugged him close.

What a dynamic little thinker!

Note: This conversation has been translated from Hindi.

Related: The Importance of Non-Verbal Cues in Communication

This priceless 5 minute interaction got me thinking.

Little Atharva had studied the situation intently. His eye gaze said it all. It moved from the painting to me. He figured how I used the brush and paints. Before he said even said the first sentence, he had understood the situation and had thought of an alternative way of painting. He demonstrated with the appropriate action and checked to see if I was impressed!

In fact, the words formed only a small part of our interaction.

We communicated through our body stance, our facial expressions, our eye gaze and gestures. It reminded me of a chart by that I’ve used over the years.IMG_2014This chart is based on a webinar by Dr Steven Gutstein.

Some important points emerge from this.

  1. Children learn from body language, facial expressions, gestures and voices in the first year of their lives.
  2. The feedback loop (the back and forth communication between parent and child) is established early in life with the interplay of non verbal foundations.
  3. Emotions are communicated non – verbally. (initially)
  4. Words are built on top of these foundations.

Here are some pertinent questions for us to reflect on- with regards to autistic individuals.

  1. Why are we obsessively focused on words?
  2. How many times do we measure the ‘mean length of utterance’ or number of words a child uses?
  3. Why don’t we measure the foundations instead?
  4. Why is the measure of improvement based on words?

More importantly, what are the repercussions of focusing on words, without building necessary foundations?

  1. Repetitive speech – Saying the same thing repeatedly frustrates both child and parents.

I know a mother who needs to get away from her adult daughter, every few weeks, as the young woman keeps repeating the same thing. It’s frustrating for both of them.

  1. Meaningless/inappropriate speech – Saying things out of context, not understanding social cues is frustrating too.

Another young man uses inappropriate speech at inappropriate times. Loudly shouting ‘toilet’ and ‘potty’ in the midst of company (when he doesn’t want to go) just to seek attention is common for him.

  1. Behavior issues – Insisting that a child respond to instructions to say something a certain way, can cause behavior issues or tantrums in children and adolescents.

My personal experience tells me that ABA has been a source of suffering for a lot of nonspeakers- though perhaps others with different symptoms may be helped by the flashcards, the baby talk, and the “touch your nose,” But for me, I get PTSD flashbacks just hearing the phrases, “High Five!” or “Good Job!” 

– Ido Kedar (Ido in Autism Land)

  1. Lack of understanding of situations leading to anxiety – Feelings of not being competent are rampant.

Many autistic adults are on medication for anxiety, as they try their best and yet don’t fit in.

The world can be a confusing place for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

They might find social or unfamiliar situations overwhelming and hard to understand. They often have difficulty working out what another person might be thinking or feeling, or how that person might react. As a result, people and situations can seem unpredictable, which can make children feel stressed and anxious. – You can read this article here.

Here is an alternative to pushing speech and language.

Related: Talking vs. Communication

Focus on the foundations of communication. Focus on building an emotional connection. Build these systematically- brick by brick. Once these are built, words will emerge meaningfully. If words don’t emerge, you can work on developing other modes of communication. Are you willing to take up this challenge?

I repeat.

Build an emotional connection with your child. It’s far more important than building a repertoire of words.

Twenty five years ago, I worked tirelessly at a table with Mohit. Sometimes for 4-5 hours a day, just building up his verbal repertoire. I thought if I fixed that, every thing would be fine. It took me years to figure that teaching language was not the solution to the problem. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Mohit is 29. He speaks using little sentences. But we’ve built a strong emotional connection using RDI techniques. He speaks volumes through his art.

Nonspeaking does not mean non-thinking. That’s my mantra. Nonspeaking may be caused by motor issues. That’s my message. Motor issues do not cause stupidity. That’s my point.

Being locked internally because of motor issues is not the same as a language processing problem and should not be treated as such. – Ido Kedar (Ido in Autism Land)

Forgive me for using, ‘typically developing’ in the first line. I believe every child is unique and should be respected for being the way they are. They should be taught the way they learn.

And, it doesn’t really matter what language Atharva spoke to me in. We communicated, much before he said the first sentence.

I wish you a year of thinking out of the box.


RDI Certified Consultant Kamini Lackani IndiaLakhani is a, RDI® program consultant and the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center). She has over 19 years of experience working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and currently serves as the director of our RDI Professional Training Center in Mumbai. She is the Director of SAI School (ABA Center) and SAI Connections (RDI Center).

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