Do we see communication and speech as the same? Well, while both speech and communication are necessary skills, both words have different meanings.
So, how is both communication and speech different from one another?
According to the creator of the Picture Exchange Communication System (Frost and Bondy, 2002), communication is any behaviour exchanged with another person that produces related or direct social rewards. For example:
Speech, on the other hand, is the expression of communication and thoughts through spoken language (Merriam Webster Dictionary). Spoken language however is challenging for some children with autism. For some, they may have only little of this, for others they may not have speech at all. How then do we help these children?
In the examples above, we note different ways that children can engage in speech to communicate that are not necessarily reliant on spoken verbal speech. These include using sign language, using pictures or even using a communicative device in lieu of spoken verbal speech.
Now that we understand how communication and speech are different, let’s see how both skills are vital for a child with autism. One of the core areas that will need to be addressed with children with autism is teaching them the power of communicating (communication) using a tool that is appropriate.
Many of us have learnt from a young age that when we communicate, there are positive outcomes. For example, as a baby, when we cry, mummy comes to comfort us. Then as a toddler, when we point to a set of trains, we get the trains in return. Then as a child, when we ask for help, our parents assist in return. Then as we grow older, we communicate for a variety of reasons beyond requesting to include commenting on others, describing our experiences, sharing our feelings and contributing our ideas.
In all the examples above, these children have engaged in the act of communication. The tool in which they communicated was initially pre-intentional as a baby then more intentional as they grew older. To put it simply, as a baby we pre-intentionally communicate by crying. This behaviour is not directed at another person. It requires the people in our environment to interpret what we are communicating. Then, we learn the power of gestures (for example, pointing) and words. This results in intentional directed communication. This behaviour is directed at another person.
For chidren on the autism spectrum, this understanding that communication produces positive outcomes may be absent or may not be at par to what we expect of their age. We could observe this in a 4-year-old engaging in pre-intentional communciation like crying to ask for a snack. What about a 7-year-old who has speech but bites his hand when he is angry? We could also observe this in a 17-year-old jumping and hand-flapping because he is excited about receiving a new phone.
Thus, teaching communication to children on the autism spectrum is vital. The misconception is that this communication has to be spoken verbal speech. This, however, as aforementioned can be challenging for some children on the autism spectrum. Under the circumstance, to eliminate other tools of communicating would result in increased frustration. Thus, the need to teach other tools to communicate is equally as vital. From our earlier example, children on the autism specturm who do find spoken verbal speech very challenging can be taught to use sign language, pictures or to write.
The tool to communicate that we teach to these children should be functional. Thus, in communities where sign langauge may not be understood, pictures may be a more appropriate option. Similarly, in a community where the primary lanaguge is Mandarin, teaching communciation in English may be less functional.
Imagine a world where we have lost our voices, we are in a foreign country that speaks a foreign language. The helplessness that we would feel when we go about our day-to-day life can be highly frustrating. Imagine if this is the world we wake up to every day.
For many children on the autism spectrum where both communication and speech is delayed, this is their reality. Teaching communciation and speech becomes vital so that these children understand that appropriate and functional communication is rewarding.
To conclude, here are 3 simple questions to ask yourself when targeting communication and speech:
- Identify what is the child trying to communicate?
- How is the child communicating this? is it functional?
- What would be a more functional way to communicate this? Remember this may not always be spoken verbal speech but may be in form of sign language, picture, using a communciate device or using appropriate gesture.
- Frost, L. & Bondy, A. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System. Pyramid Education Products, Australia.