"Communication - the human connection"
~ Paul J. Meyer
All of us experience the immense power of speech and communication on a daily basis. A basic exchange of a number of words can lead to the unlocking of most valued opportunities. Unfortunately, many individuals with ASD are afflicted with the inability to communication with speech. This can lead to severe problem behaviour out of frustration and the lack of means of communication. Although the absence of speech poses its own set of difficulties, the absence of speech itself is not necessarily the absence of the ability to communicate.
Ideally, one of the main goals for non-verbal individuals with ASD is of course speech. We do have to take several factors into consideration, both as professionals and caretakers. First of all, age is a major contributing factor to the ability of speech. It is less likely for individuals more advanced in age to fully acquire speech. Another factor is practice, does the individual have the consistent opportunities and proper environment that will facilitate the practice of speech? A third factor to consider under the topic of speech is physiology. It is important to rule out all possible physiological factors that may contribute to the lack of speech (i.e. muscle disabilities, hearing disabilities, specific speech disorders).
That being said, ABA therapy is also equipped to assist with the acquisition of speech. Speech has been very successfully developed following the principles of ABA. Again, although speech is of high importance, we have to keep in mind that the fundamental ability to communicate effectively and functionally by non-verbal means should be developed, even when speech may be a goal currently beyond reach.
How can a child communicate non-verbally?
Among others, a main concept that has lead the field of ABA down the path of non-verbal communication is the concept and methods of PECS. PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System and was developed as a tool in 1984 by Lori Frost, MS, CCC/SLP and Dr. Andrew Bondy. The ethos behind PECS is that non-verbal communication is an effective pathway that can be systematically taught. PECS involves several phases to teach not only communicate through requesting, but responding to simple questions as well as commenting! Going through the PECS stages of teaching looks a little something like this-
Stage 1 -
Exchanging a single picture for an item/desired activity (Takes single picture of corresponding desired item/activity, gives it to the teacher in order to access it)
Stage 2 -
Being able to make the exchange of a single picture with increased distance between the learner and the teacher, as well as across teachers/other relevant individuals and settings (Skill of exchange undergoes generalisation)
Stage 3 -
Adding on more pictures to teach the learner to discriminate between requests (The learner becomes more discerning in making their requests)
Stage 4 -
The learner is now more ready to construct simple sentences for exchange (i.e. Selecting the "I want" card followed by the item card, and then performing the exchange)
Stage 5 -
Being able to respond to simple questions (i.e. "What do you want?") using the same method of exchange
Stage 6 -
Learning to comment on aspects of their surroundings with different sentence stems (I.e. "I see....", "That's a....", etc)
There has also been research suggesting that alongside the teaching of PECS, speech itself may increase. When the demand to articulate is paired with the teaching of PECS (The child is required to make vocalisations following the delivery of the picture in order to complete the exchange), speech can be simultaneously developed! However, this is also based on the capabilities of the individual.
All in all, facilitating non-verbal communication via PECS or other apps or softwares that utilise a similar exchange method is highly beneficial for non-verbal individuals with ASD. Here at Autism Link we have had immense success with the use of PECS and have seen marked decreases in problem behaviour following the implementation of non-verbal communication training.
That's all for this month! Remember, communication is key!