ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

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Saturday, July 15, 2006: 10:00 AM-11:15 AM
#1734- Communication Environments – Giving Children a Reason to Communicate!
This session will demonstrate the importance of creating communication environments to encourage children to initiate and communicate. Too often we “help” children so much that they become dependent on our help. By hindering our natural “helper” instincts we can actually give children more reasons to communicate. Parents and professionals can create communication environments that encourage children to initiate. Specific techniques and strategies, along with video clips, will be introduced so that participants will be able to create communication friendly environments!

Presenter:Teresa A. Cardon, M.A., CCC-SLP, Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, Clinical Services Officer - Teresa Cardon is a speech language pathologist who has been working with individuals on the autism spectrum for over fourteen years. Teresa is the Clinical Services Officer for the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center. Teresa has taught numerous social skills groups and authored the book Let’s Talk Emotions (2004, AAPC). Teresa also provides early intervention trainings for parents and professionals throughout Arizona and California. Teresa has presented for the Arizona Speech Language and Hearing Association, the Arizona Department of Education, The Autism Society of America – Arizona Chapter, and numerous public schools and private organizations across the United States.
The ability to initiate is vital to the overall success of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Initiation is often described as a “pivotal” behavior. A child who can initiate will be able to get other's to respond to them and in turn improve their overall communication and language skills. Children with ASD are often great little “responders” but they are not often great initiators! Being a great “responder” means that they figure out pretty quickly that when someone says something they are expected to do something.

In order to encourage a child to initiate we need to avoid anticipating a child's needs! We need to give children a reason to come to us and initiate an interaction. When we use our powers of prediction we may actually be discouraging initiation skills. Take breakfast for example, does a child have any reason to come and “ask” for juice when the juice cup is already on the table and ready to go? What if instead of having juice in a cup and ready to go – the bottle of juice is placed on the counter where the child can still see it but can't reach it? It may not seem like much but in order to get what they want a child has to intentionally send a message by reaching for the juice, pulling someone to the juice or asking for the juice. The opportunity to initiate would have been lost if the juice was already in a cup on the table.

If we want our children to become great initiators instead of just great responders – we have to set up situations that require our involvement! To become an effective initiator (and eventually an effective communicator) children need to realize the power their actions and words can have. It is imperative then that we give them as many opportunities to initiate as possible. One way to teach a child to initiate is by creating Communication Environments! You create opportunities for children to initiate and communicate because you create environments that encourage communication.

Creating an organized and structured system in the kitchen goes a long way to increasing a child's desire to initiate and interact. The kitchen is a central place that families gather and opportunities to communicate are plentiful. Food is also (typically – but not always!) a great motivator. Think about putting a lock on the cabinets and refrigerator or placing snacks within sight but out of reach. Your child must initiate an interaction with another individual to get their needs met. The key is to organize your living space so that it works for your family and increases your child's opportunities to communicate.

A family room is meant to be just that – a room where the family can gather. Too often, however, family rooms become cluttered, over stimulating parking lots for miscellaneous “stuff”! For a child with autism this is definitely not a communicatively friendly environment. Be sure that a clear physical structure to the room has been established! Motivating toys and DVD's that have been placed in cupboards can be great reasons for a child to communicate. Teach them how to initiate and ask for their favorites and watch the communication interactions increase!

In the bedroom, putting systems in place to help a child know what is expected of them increases their opportunities to communicate. Visual helpers that indicate where clothes are can help children take more responsibility in dressing routines. Providing choices within that dressing routine can encourage them to initiate. During familiar routines you can make a mistake on purpose to give a child another reason to communicate. When it is time for the pants to go on - hand them the shoes. Not only do you provide them with an opportunity to communicate but you encourage their problem solving skills as well!

It is important to create communication environments at school as well. Creating a clear physical arrangement in the classroom with identifiable stations, choice boards and visual schedules is just a first step in providing much needed structure and routine. Putting toys in clear bins that are too tricky to open creates a reason for a child to communicate. Providing parts but not wholes to activities is another way to create a reason for communication: put out a train track but leave off the trains, put the farmhouse out but forget to put out the animals, etc. The key is to remember that too much help can actually hinder communication.

Now that we have talked about setting up all of these communication environments we need to be clear on how to teach a child to initiate! There are a variety of prompts and cues that can assist us in doing just that. More intrusive prompts, such as a physical prompt may be necessary in the beginning to ensure a child's successful first attempts. As children gain more confidence and understand the clear predictable way that they are to initiate in order to get their needs met, less intrusive prompts such as verbal commands or partial prompts may be incorporated. The important thing is to keep it predictable and teach them how to initiate in each and every situation that has been set up.

The overall message is clear, we need to stop anticipating a child's needs in order to encourage them to communicate! Creating communication environments at home and in the school setting is a natural and functional way to do just that!

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