Autism can mean differences in language development,
meaning alternative communication is common for autistic people to express themselves.
What alternative forms are there of communication?
People do not need to speak in order to communicate. Communication is about sending messages to one another and how we understand these messages. There are many ways in which communication takes place for example, using hand gestures, facial expression or eye contact with one another.
Here are a few examples of forms of communication that autistic individuals might use in place of verbal speech:
How do I support someone in using their preferred form of communication?
Learning a new mode of communication can be challenging and it is important that people get support in doing so from others in their environment. One of the best ways that you can support someone in using their preferred form of communication is by immersing yourself in learning this new mode too. Aided language modelling is the process of learning a new form of communication and modelling using it. It is a crucial part in learning additional forms of communication.
When learning any new communication system it is important that the people in our close environment, whether it be the caregiver, teachers and even peers, also use this mode of communication so that the individual can see how it works and learn how to use it to communicate. This mirrors verbal language development, learning how to understand the messages that others send before sending messages ourselves.
While it is important to identify a mode of communication that suits the individual it is also important to look at how we accept this method of communication. As our society becomes more accepting of individual differences, organisations become more flexible with the methods of communication they accept. For example, it is important that services allow various modes of communication and not just typical verbal communication to be accessible to a broader population. Remember that autism is by no means the only disability which may necessitate alternative communication. Therefore, by becoming more accepting of these ways of communicating, we are making changes that will help a larger number of people.
It is also important to be open-minded about the methods of communication that our friends and family members might use. For example, bearing in mind, that perhaps someone might prefer to communicate with you by text rather than in person. Or a teacher accepting that a student might prefer to record questions that they might have rather than asking them during class time. We are open-minded about these differences because we value our connection with one another and we respect our differences. We must focus on individuals’ strengths and what they can do and like to do, and not what they find challenging.
Be open-minded! Encouraging any change of behaviour can be challenging and learning a new method of communication is no different. Your child may become frustrated as they become familiar with this new method. Be patient, and remember that you play a crucial role in assisting your child in learning their new method of communication. It is important that the new method of communication becomes embedded in your everyday life. Set a reminder on your phone or leave some visual information on your fridge to remind yourself of what it is you need to do to help your child on this journey.
Will the use of alternative forms of communication inhibit my child’s ability to speak?
There is no evidence that suggests that using an alternative means of communication will stop or delay speech development. Using an alternative form of communication is a way to improve communication skills, by sending and interpreting messages sent back and forth. An alternative form of communication provides the individual with a voice, and an opportunity to relieve frustration and enhance their skills.
How do you choose a method of communication?
Initially, when looking for an alternative method of communication to try it is important to gather as much information as possible. Look for recommendations from your trusted sources e.g., from a speech and language therapist, from a Facebook community group you are part of, from teachers or from parents in your parent support group. You should seek methods which are evidence-based. It is also important to bear in mind if this method is going to be a good fit for you, your family and most importantly, your child. Being autism friendly means finding the best fit for the individual person’s support needs and alternative communication is no different. Think about your child’s strengths and try to match this method with those strengths.