Building your child’s communication skills is the single most effective way to improve behavior, play and socialization. Children who can communicate their needs, wants, likes and dislikes are much less likely to cry, scream or protest.
While most parents recognize the value of good communication skills, many are unaware that there are lots of ways to shape these skills long before children begin to use verbal speech. Communication is so much more than the sounds and words we use. Eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and postures are all important parts of communication, and lay the foundation for the vocal parts of communication that follow. Long before the use of words, children learn that they can influence others, share in experiences and meet their needs through the use of sounds, expressions and gestures.
To improve communication skills, begin by shaping the natural gestures that kids use. Start by offering your child a desired object, but holding it slightly out of reach so that your child has to extend his or her hand to grab for it. Or hold out one favorite object and one that your child isn’t interested in, and wait for your child to reach for the one they want, or push away the one they don’t want.
It is important to wait for the child to initiate communication in some way – such as reaching, vocalizing, smiling or making eye contact with you – and to avoid guessing what the child wants and rushing to give it to them. As soon as you seen a communicative gesture, such as a smile along with eye contact, treat it as if your child just told you exactly what they wanted, and give it to them along with enthusiastic words of encouragement.
When my daughter was 8 months old, she would flap her arms up and down when she was excited, just as I have seen so many other babies do. We used to play a game where I would stand her in front of me on the bed, holding her under her arms. I would bounce her up and down twice and then wait. If she flapped her arms and looked at me with a smile, I cheerfully said, “You want more!” and gave her a few more bounces. I would stop and wait for another communication from her and then excitedly verbalize “more” while giving her additional bounces.
This game could go on long after my arms were tired from bouncing her. What she seemed to enjoy most about it was not the bouncing itself, but the power of being able to communicate something to me that I subsequently responded to. I noticed that the laughter and excited flailing of her arms only occurred when we played the game of “communicating,” but not when I simply sat behind her and bounced her up and down with no feedback from her. Over time, the game shifted from her flailing her arms to my teaching her to bring her hands together, and eventually to signing “more.” Before long, she verbalized “more” as one of her first sets of words.
As we offer reinforcement each time a child initiates communication, we are strengthening their understanding of the power of this communication to meet their needs. Waiting for a child to communicate a need, and suppressing the desire to rush in and give them exactly what we know they want, teaches them the fundamentals of getting their needs met, no matter where or with whom they are interacting.
Hilya Delband Tehrani, Psy.D., BCBA-D, has been dedicated to working with children and adolescents with ASD since 1999. As a Psychologist and a Director of Clinical Development at Working With Autism, Inc., she recognizes that the best way to maximize a child’s potential is through developmentally informed, empirically supported, multi-disciplinary practice tailored to the child’s unique profile. Learn more at www.workingwithautism.com.