Autism can mean differences in language development, meaning alternative communication is common for autistic people to express themselves.
What forms of alternative communication are available?
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 e.g. 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:
- Sign Language, e.g., Lámh and Irish Sign Language (ISL)
- Using visual symbols, e.g., letter or picture boards, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
- Using objects: objects of reference involves using objects to signify an event or activity, e.g. a lunchbox signifies that it is lunchtime
- Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA), e.g., using an app on an iPad or tablet
How can I support autistic people 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. 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 of 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 or 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. This includes someone who 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, what they can do and like to do, 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 using alternative 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.
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.
How do you choose a form 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.
What are visual supports and why are they important?
Verbal communication involves using words to send a message. Visual communication is a form of alternative communication which involves using a visual or graphic, such as a picture, video or sign, to send and receive messages. One of the main strengths of using visual forms of communication is that the message lasts longer, giving us more time to process it. Autism by itself doesn’t impede visual communication. In fact, research has suggested that autistic people process language in quite a visual way. So if we can communicate in a visual way, it can help us build on our own or our child’s strengths. Visuals are not only useful for autistic children but other children too.
How do I use visual supports to communicate with my child?
There are many ways that you can use visuals at home to support your child. One way that we can introduce visuals at home is by using choice boards. You can provide your child with the opportunity to make their own decisions by helping them to understand their options in a visual way. For example, you might provide your child with a choice between 2 of their preferred activities by showing them a photograph of a swing and a trampoline, supporting them to make their own independent choice.
One of the most useful ways we can use visual supports at home is by using visual information to describe what we are doing or what is happening. Visual schedules can clearly indicate a step-by-step plan for the day, a useful tool for timetabling and planning. Using visuals we can show, “first we are doing this, next we are moving onto this etc.,.” In this way, visuals can also be used to prepare for change and prepare for transitions. Visuals can help to reduce anxiety about what is unknown or unexpected.
You can also use visual schedules to explain where other people are, e.g., a picture of dad at a desk indicates that dad is in work for the day. You can also use visual cues to introduce flexibility or change at home. For example, to let your child know that it is a school day you could leave their schoolbag at the front door for them to see when they wake up. Whereas, if it is not a school day, there would be no schoolbag at the front door. Using the visual cue of the school bag effectively communicates to your child whether they are going to school that day or not.
You could use visual supports to help your child to express how they are feeling. You could use colours to indicate how you are feeling e.g., red when you are not feeling great or green when you are feeling good. Another way of expressing feelings through visuals could be by using a thermostat image or a scale and allowing your child to indicate where on that scale they are feeling. Visuals are also particularly helpful at providing a step-by-step of how to tackle difficult tasks. Visuals can help us learn to be more independent. For example, you could break the task of getting dressed down into a step-by-step format visually and over time. This will help the individual to independently get dressed. Sometimes when we break a task down step by step it can allow us to see how difficult a task truly is!