By the time my granddaughter was sixteen months old, I vowed never again use the words “babble” or “gibberish” to describe baby talk. She came to our house every week and talked nonstop. Words, phrases, sentences, songs (yes, carried a tune). Not only that, but she used the most mature inflections and facial expressions I’d ever seen from a one-year-old. We could tell when she was asking a question, when she was excited to tell us something. She looked us directly in the eye, waiting for a response after she’d spoken. There’s no denying that she knew exactly what she was saying, and the fact that we couldn’t yet decode most of her words in no way negated or diminished how adeptly she was communicating.
Consider: if a wise, educated, and articulate person spoke to you in language not familiar to you, you wouldn’t denigrate it by calling it babbling or gibberish. You’d look for bridges to connect your two modes of communication. Then and now, as our little grandie continues to learn spoken language, I love listening to her talk, can’t get enough of it, and I acknowledge every word that comes out of her mouth, usually ending with “Tell me more!”
Too many of today’s problems stem from persons and populations not feeling heard. It’s too convenient to simply ignore or brush off those who don’t communicate in our personal chosen mode. Chapter Five of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, titled “Listen to All the Ways I’m Trying to Communicate,” offers this advice from our speech therapist:
“Look at your child when you speak to him, and answer him every time he speaks to you or otherwise attempts to communicate, letting him know you value everything he has to say, regardless of whether you understand him.”
How beautifully this has come back to me, beyond the boundaries of the spectrum which, the longer I live, the more I think those boundaries may not exist, but are porous, open, and welcoming for all who care about human interaction and interdependence.
The following excerpt from that Ten Things chapter bids us to further contemplate how we can expand those boundaries:
“Use your words.”
As you push your child or student toward verbal communication, how many times have your prompted him to do this, and with how many different inflections? One day encouraging, gently coaxing. The next day stern, with a shot of frustration. Another day, weary and pleading. All the words your child has may not be enough to make his needs, wants, thoughts, and ideas known. She may have learned a word, but producing it requires added layers of processing and skill. Articulating her thoughts and feelings may be easy one day, impossible the next when sensory issues amplify and interfere, or when your expectation that she maintain certain behaviors depletes all the energy she can muster. Think you know how it feels to be forced to multi-task under pressure? Your child or student’s list includes trying to self-regulate multiple hyper- or hypoactive senses simultaneously, intercept and interpret visual and auditory clues and cues floating around, use social observation and interpretation to problem solve what to say and do, and then produce language as well.
“Use your words” is a worthy goal, as so many cultures consider speech to be the ultimate portable, standalone, all-terrain, all-hours, all-weather communication device. But on the way to achieving any degree of that goal, it’s compulsory that we acknowledge and facilitate all our child or student’s attempts to communicate, in whatever form the message comes.
Acknowledge and accept that those attempts that don’t include words, that come from behavior or silence, are rich in communication. None of us get through life without our moments of “being at a loss for words.” So even when a child has words to use, honor her behavior as an attempt to communicate in the only way she may be able to at that moment. Likewise, a child’s silence can be eloquent communication. Consider the directive, “Answer me!”, so often uttered in frustration, exasperation, or anger when a child’s response doesn’t come in the words and manner we expect. When silence is the response, consider the many possible perspectives the child may harbor but can’t articulate:
- I didn’t understand you. Try a different way.
- Your words hurt me.
- You made me angry.
- I don’t have a response.
- You misjudged me.
- You taught me to ignore people who speak to me disrespectfully.
Getting into the practice of communicating with your child on his custom wavelength is excellent preparation for those teen years, when your child will treat you to typical teen behaviors alongside her autism-influenced ones. Starting now, listen to everything your child wants to tell you, in whatever form it comes. Look at him when he speaks or otherwise attempts to communicate with you, and answer him every time, in a manner that is meaningful to him. Setting up that reciprocal exchange (he hears you; you hear him) gives him confidence in the value of his message, whatever it may be and however it may be delivered. That confidence will become the motivation that moves him beyond concrete responses to spontaneous offerings, and on to initiating thoughtful and thought-filled conversation, something parents and teachers of language-challenged children alike yearn for.
Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed, delighted, and guided readers in more than twenty languages. The latest edition of her perennially bestselling book, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew (2019), won the Chanticleer International Book Awards Grand Prize for Instruction and Insight, and is an Eric Hoffer Book Awards Grand Prize Short List honoree and Montaigne Medal finalist.
Keywords: autism, autistic, ASD, spectrum, baby talk, toddler, words, facial expressions, inflections, talk, speech, speak, communicate, communication, therapy, teach, encourage, parent, parenting, gibberish, babble, vocabulary, learn.