WHAT do communication issues have to do with discipline?  Because of specific cognitive deficits, even high-functioning or AS kids may not see words or gestures as the natural way to communicate. In our experience, many of Rob’s acting-out behaviors were actually attempts to communicate. Helping him communicate in more socially-appropriate ways became a major goal.

Disclaimer: I am not a communication specialist. Again, I can only speak to our experience with Rob, and to the things we tried that seemed to help. Each autistic/AS child is different. But according to what I have seen and read, some of these strategies may be helpful for children with a range of communication issues.

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Some basic principles to take into account:

  1. Because of “theory of mind issues” (see previous posts), autistic children may not realize they need to communicate: they may assume you already know what they want.
  2. Some autistic children think in images rather than words, and so words are not their natural way of processing information.
  3. Even if your child has a normal vocabulary and expressive language, when he is cognitively or emotionally stressed, his expressive language ability may degrade. Giving him alternative ways to communicate under stress may help.
  4. Unprovoked aggression or annoying behavior may actually be a form of social approach.

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Rob did not speak until he was 24 months. He did not babble much, but it was obvious that he heard and understood what we said to him. He did not point at things he wanted, but he did lead us to what he wanted (or more often, just got it himself, even if it meant climbing up to the top shelf in our kitchen cupboards that went all the way up to the 12-foot ceilings).  Especially odd to us was that, although he did not speak or babble,  when I read to him, he knew and would make the animal sounds in his books. I would point to a cat and say, how does the kitty go? And Rob would say meow.  How does the cow go? Moo.   How do you explain a toddler that could bark, meow, moo, screech,  neigh, oink, growl and roar – but had never said Mama , Dada,  bye-bye, or any other recognizable word?

I worried, but at that point, his speech was the least of our concerns (see previous posts about his incredible hyperactivity and destructiveness).  Our pediatrician said that he was still in the “normal” range until he turned two. And after all, my twin brother didn’t speak until he was three – and he was a genius. And my mother had described similar behavior from him in terms of grunting and hand-leading to indicate what he wanted. I later realized that my twin brother is high-functioning autistic, but when I was growing up there was no such diagnosis: we always just attributed his strange behavior to his brilliance or to laziness.

When Rob did begin to speak, it came all at once. At 23 months, he had no words, but by his second birthday a month later, he had the typical number of words and was using 2-3 word sentences.  LIke most AS kids, his speech was not conventional. His first word was “yellow” (his favorite color). He did not say Mama or Dada, but he did try to say his sister’s name.  He did not reverse pronouns or refer to himself in the third person like many autistic children do.  His speech was mainly functional, but he also repeated phrases over and over, especially ones he heard on TV or the radio. But even though he developed an extensive vocabulary, and could carry on a conversation, he did not tend to use language in a given situation until we prompted him to “use his words.” This continued long into his childhood, and we still need to remind him at times even as an adult.

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Instead of words, Rob often used actions. If he wanted something, he got it himself, or grabbed it from someone else. If he wanted to play, or wanted attention, he would hit, or pinch, or throw something at you.  One of his annoying habits was to come up to me (or his dad or sister) while we were reading or doing something else, and poke, pinch, hit or grab us.  Before he was diagnosed, we regarded this as a discipline problem, and we ended up spanking him or giving him time out, which never helped the situation, or changed his behavior.  But after he was diagnosed, and I started reading about autism, it occurred to me one day that maybe he wanted something.  So when he kept poking his sister and she was whining at him to stop, I asked him, Rob, is there something you want? He smiled and climbed up next to his sister and put her arm around him. He wanted to cuddle, and he showed it by pinching or hitting her! After that, whenever he began to hit or pinch, or poke one of us, instead of disciplining him for the aggression, we started asking him, Rob, is there something you want? Use your words. And if he then asked for what he wanted, we rewarded him (and ignored the previous aggression). After a few weeks Rob was talking more, and using less aggression to initiate social interactions.

From this experience, I started to realize that Rob needed to be reminded that we did not know what he wanted unless he told us. I suspect that he used aggression as a social approach because he felt that we already knew what he wanted, and we were ignoring him, so he would hit or pinch or grab.

If Rob was agitated, upset or frustrated, his ability to use words was noticeably lessened. This often led to tantrums because he couldn’t make himself understood. His first-grade teacher had started to teach Rob sign language. and we noticed he could sign even when he couldn’t speak. We could ask him questions and he would sign yes or no, to help us understand what was bothering him. We also used picture systems, so he could point to what he wanted, or give us a token that showed how he felt.

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By taking into account his sensory issues, comprehension issues, and communication issues, we were able, over time, to encourage Rob to act in more socially appropriate ways. But there were times when Rob just wasn’t motivated to comply. Like any other kid, he just wanted his own way. Motivating autistic children to want to behave will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Next: motivation issues

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