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Learning the Lingo

The art of communication is key for socialization in children on the spectrum


By Dwain Hebda

“That doesn’t make any sense at all. That’s ridiculous, Mom,” says the bright 9-year-old. “I don’t know why you’re saying that.”

There was a time not long ago Kristin Lipin would flinch over uttering a phase that elicited such comments from her son Grayson. But these days it brings a smile, knowing it’s his way of processing the unknown instead of internalizing it. 

(From left) Grayson, kristin and William Lipin

(From left) Grayson, kristin and William Lipin

“At first, I tried to really think through exactly what I was saying to make sure it was going to be understandable and make sure it made sense,” she said. “Now I try to use [figures of speech] intentionally because he’s more comfortable and he’s completely willing to say, ‘I don’t know what that means. What does that mean, Mom?’ We talk it through and explain it.”

Think for a moment of all the things that go into the art of communication besides the words coming out of your mouth, things like body language, tone, vocal inflection and facial expressions. Now throw in slang and euphemism—“I’m going to die if someone sees my hair today”—and the web of social norms dictating what we say and how we say it based on surroundings or situation. 

And that’s just when you’re speaking. The work doubles when you’re evaluating the listener’s physical and vocal tells as they take in your words and respond in kind. Are they being truthful? Are they trying to be funny? Do they really want to know what I think about their ugly outfit?

It’s a lot for even experienced adults to process and manage correctly; imagine how much more difficult for an individual whose cognitive skills derail the natural socialization process we all go through in our formative years. That’s precisely the road the Lipin family has walked since Grayson was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in second grade.

“I don’t want it to sound like he was in complete meltdown, but [Grayson] would play with other kids and if another child was not doing very well at a game he would say, ‘You’re just really terrible at that,’ and not understand why they didn’t like that,” Kristin said. 

“By second grade, honestly, we were just in crisis. He was not functioning. His anxiety was extremely high. He was depressed. He’s certainly really smart so he knows when he’s out of step with everyone else, but he didn’t know what to do to become in step.”

Grayson’s story isn’t unusual, and neither is the frustration, stress and isolation that children feel when they have difficulty communicating with the people around them. 

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“The stages of development show egocentrism is something that a child goes through normally at a younger age. But for children with autism, I would say they are more egocentric even as they get older,” said Alicia Pattillo, speech language pathologist with Access Schools, who worked with Grayson. “They’re not able to recognize anything outside of their own world.”

“Helping children understand their emotions and social emotional development and understanding the emotions of others are things we’re focusing on in our field. So much plays into them recognizing their own emotions and the emotions of others in order to be able to interact with others based on that information.”

Pattillo said when children on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing one or more components of communication, it can create an intensely stressful situation. Her methodology helps provide practice scenarios in a controlled environment to help them develop these skills.  

“We teach them through visual support and role plays and things like that,” she said. “As they get older, we go into conflict resolution and understanding problems. A lot of times, they have difficulty identifying that there is a problem and then identifying what could they do to solve the problem. We use a lot of different materials to teach them that.” 

“Then after instruction, we apply it. We’ll bring a peer in and they have to practice in front of a peer. We take them out into the community and we practice it with people in the community.”

Even with speech therapy, children often struggle to apply what they’ve practiced, especially if the situation presents them variables.

Grayson enjoying the great outdoors

Grayson enjoying the great outdoors

“They have difficulty generalizing skills,” Pattillo said. “You can teach one thing, but they may not be able to apply it in different situations. As speech pathologists, we try to help them apply skills in different situations.”

Social interaction presents challenges to all youngsters at one point or another. Dr. Jayne Bellando, pediatric psychologist and associate professor at UAMS in the Department of Pediatrics, said what separates children on the autism scale is often an overriding—even paralyzing—compulsion to present the “right” response in the most pedestrian conversations.

 “I had a young lady and her mother come into a therapy session years ago and I started making small talk. She started getting so upset because I was saying things like ‘How are you doing? What do you like to do?’ and she wasn’t able to come up with the right answer,” Bellandro said.

“After about a minute I realized what was happening. I stopped and said to her, ‘People sometimes say those things because they’re trying to let you know that they’re wanting to be friendly. But you don’t have to have the right answer. Let’s start talking about some other things.’ It was such an important lesson to me to see she didn’t understand the rules that typically stand for socialization and it was very upsetting to her.”

Bellando’s advice to parents is to break things down for their youngster into more manageable bits of information. 

“When you start seeing anxiety, especially as youngsters get older, that’s when you start seeing depression because they’re feeling left out and having a hard time figuring out how to make the social part work for them,” she said.

“A good way to say it is, ‘Bite-sized pieces.’ The analogy I give is when a child is learning to read, there’s no way we give them 26 letters and say, ‘Put them together in different ways and then you can read. Good luck.’ You have to take it very systematically.”