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Jaime Openden, M.S., CCC-SLP Headshot

Word to Your Mom (or Dad)

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When we hear the word communication, we most often think of speaking. This is fair and quite logical, as most of us use words to convey messages each and every day with a variety of people. We talk about our weekends and the tastes of the foods we eat and how we feel about Hurricane Sandy, Argo or the upcoming election.

But many children with special needs are often unable to effectively express even their most basic needs and desires. They do not have the words to say, " I absolutely despise broccoli," or "I'd rather watch SpongeBob," or "I need help in the bathroom."

Delays and disorders of expressive language lead to aggression, fear, isolation and significant frustration. Out of these myriad emotions, a new form of communication emerges, something that is often reminiscent of an ultimate charades fail moment.

Rather than placing all the emphasis on "talking," or guessing what a child is thinking, feeling, or demanding at any given moment, let's break the mold and foster independence in communication. To do this we must think outside of the proverbial box (in this case, the word) when it comes to communication.

In order for us to consider effective communication without using words, let's begin with a little exercise. Do me a favor and grab your remote and flip on the TV. Put on a sitcom or reality show or whatever you like. Now put it on mute. Watch TV for about five to 10 minutes and make sure to observe the facial expressions, the gestures, the emotions conveyed. Go ahead, I'll wait. You're back? Great! I bet you really didn't catch many of the words being spoken (unless you are a world class lip reader or used the subtitles). But that didn't really make any difference, did it? I'm still pretty sure you could tell me the characters' feelings, the situations they were in, and the major plot points. All of that communication happening right before your eyes, without those pesky things we call words.

The point is, we convey a whole lot with all the things we don't say. Rather than settling into a state of less than ideal, frustration-laden exchanges, let's give our children a means to communicate better, even when mute is on. Here is how:

1. Sign language: American Sign Language (ASL) is a fantastic communication method not only for children with special needs, but for typically developing children as well. Gross motor function (that which is necessary for signing) develops faster than fine motor function (required for speech production). Teaching children some basic vocabulary (and modified) signs like milk, more, open, bathroom, play, and all done can work wonders in improving communication skills and is easy to do at home by modeling and practicing the gestures during meals, play time and daily routines.

2. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): Today's emerging technology is continually changing the landscape of communication to assist children, teens and adults with special needs. iPads, smartphones, tons of free and affordable apps, and interactive touch screen computers are just some of the many great tools available. These devices are intuitive, fun, educational and becoming more easily accessible.

3. Pictures: You don't have to get fancy or break the bank with high tech devices in order to promote effective communication. Simple pictures can make a huge difference. Using pictures encourages pointing and requesting in a functional manner. Highly motivating situations (such as mealtime and playtime) are ideal situations in which to introduce pictures. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is often used in schools and can be used at home as well, by simply taking pictures, printing them out, laminating them and putting some Velcro on the back.

These are just a few ideas that go a long way towards reducing frustration, anxiety and the behavioral outbursts associated with expressive language disorders. Let's give children the tools to express themselves. Let's empower children to communicate to the best of their ability. And fear not! Research has shown that using alternative communication such as AAC devices and sign language typically leads to an increase in verbal communication.