Tag Archives: Language acquisition

The Problem with “Use Your Words”

How many of us have uttered those three words to our kids?

Use your words!

And yet, if your child is like mine, they probably do use words.  Perhaps they “script”, words we dismiss because we recognize them from a movie, or perhaps we hear the tone and recognize it as echolalia and therefore  ignore.  Maybe we think of the words as a verbal stim or maybe we hear that those words come from a teacher, the bus driver, another kid, a friend, us…  and again we dismiss them as meaningless.  But what if we are wrong?  What if all those words our kids are nobly attempting to use ARE communicating something, but it is US who cannot make the connection?  What if our kids do not learn language as we think of language being learned, but they are learning it, in their own way, on their own timeline?  What if all those words they keep using, the ones we are told to ignore or not reinforce by acknowledging, are HOW they are learning to speak?

I am currently reading Marge Blanc’s book, Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language
and these are but a few of the questions being answered.  One thing I have not yet seen or can find in this terrific book is any mention of Tourette’s.  I am curious to know the authors opinion on how Tourette’s factors into language acquisition or if it even does.  Marge, if you’re reading this, I’m hoping you’ll comment!

In those early, blurred years after Emma’s diagnosis I remember thinking that any language was good language.  And then my daughter began to say things, things I could not and did not understand and I was told, those are meaningless words, you must ignore them, you must not reinforce them.  But maybe, just maybe those words are the foundation for others that I and others will be able to understand at some point.  My friend Ibby, of the fabulous blog, Tiny Grace Notes, told me more than a year ago about the importance of not trying to do a word for word translation of the things my daughter said, but rather to lean into the words.  I couldn’t fully understand what she was telling me at the time, but slowly I have begun to.

Marge Blanc writes, “As we valiantly try to replace our kids’ echolalia, their natural language, we feel validated when they learn to say new things.  We teach our kids a dozen functional phrases and sentences and feel satisfied that we have taught “functional speech.”  The tragedy is that while IEP goals are met, children’s linguistic potential has been ignored – and undermined.  We have forgotten how to assess a child’s developmental language level and his capacity to develop generative language.  And we have also failed to consider that the functional phrases we’ve taught might actually interfere with his potential to develop language competence.  And in the process, the echolalia doesn’t go away.”

Now add to this idea the way we are taught to ignore those scripts, that we mustn’t give them any air to breathe as we will only encourage the proliferation of similar non “language.”  So we smile patiently and nod our heads and say…

Use your words.

But not those words.  Use these words.  The words I want to hear.  The words I am now going to repeat and have you say over and over with the hope that you will say these words, my words, in place of yours.  Isn’t that really what we mean when we say “use your words”?  Use words I want to hear.  Use words I give you, but don’t, please don’t use YOUR words.

Over a year ago I wrote about how Emma advocated for herself on the school bus.  You can read that post ‘here‘.  What I didn’t spend a great deal of time talking about was how she tried, repeatedly to “use her words” but was not listened to because they did not believe she understood what she was saying.  It was only after many attempts of using the only words she knew, “you’re going the wrong way!”  “Emma goes to a different school!”  and “you have to go this way!” that she began to scream and then bite herself and eventually punch herself in the face.  Even then, when she fell to the floor of the bus, refusing to get off, crying and hurting herself, even then they continued to not listen to the words she was saying and using and insisted she get off the bus.  It was only when one of the staff at her old school heard her and recognized her and thought to tell the driver that yes, she was correct and no longer went to this school, that she was on the wrong bus, it was only then that they dialed my number and told me my daughter was refusing to go to school, and as it turns out, rightfully so.  They had taken her to the wrong school.

When they brought her home she was devastated.  I will never forget the look on her face as she descended the steps of that bus.  Before her feet hit the ground I said, “You are so awesome Emma!  You told them this wasn’t your bus.   You told them they were going the wrong way!  I am so proud of you!”  Emma still talks about that morning, that morning over a year ago when she was “using her words” and no one listened.

Use your words.

Waiting for the school bus ~ October 2, 2013
*Em copy

Language Acquisition?

Yesterday I wrote about some of the problems inherent in asking children to read out loud.  You can read that post ‘here‘.  The comments have been uniformly terrific, extremely informative, and very helpful.  Ischemgeek wrote several comments that I’ve actually printed out and even copied and pasted into emails to a few teachers I know.  She wrote a terrific explanation and series of suggestions in answer to a question I posed asking for her thoughts regarding handwriting.  My question to her was slightly off topic from the original post, but if you read the comments you’ll see how the conversation evolved.

Another comment, from bjforshaw, reminded me of how when Emma was a baby she seemed to acquire two or even three word phrases (“chase me”, “go out”, “all done”, “play catch” “I donwannta”)  as opposed to individual words.  Bjforshaw wrote, “I dislike reading aloud because it is so different from the way I normally read and this makes it feel uncomfortable. My usual reading speed is fast, much faster than my speech, and I scan phrases, groups of words, even whole sentences. In contrast when I read aloud I have to plod along one word at a time.

When I read his comment I had one of those “light bulb” moments.  You know, where you think – wow!  This reminds me of this other, seemingly unrelated thing, I wonder if there’s a relationship?  So I went to the internet to see if I could find any articles on the topic of language acquisition, but haven’t found any dealing with babies learning whole phrases and chunks of words at a time.  Not only have I not been able to find any articles written on this topic, but I cannot find many articles written about language acquisition and autism, specifically, that aren’t more than ten years old, which I find baffling. If anyone has relevant links, please send.

I have no idea if, for some, language learning is similar to the way bjforshaw describes his ability to read, but I’m curious now.  Could it be similar?  Has anyone heard or read anything about this?  For those of you who read in chunks and not the individual word, do you know or remember whether you also learned to speak this way?  In other words instead of learning one word and then building upon that word, did you learn a phrase or several words together?  Could this also then be related to scripts? I’m thinking out loud here, but I’m wondering if scripts are meaningful because they are learned chunks of language that come to represent more than the literal interpretation given by those listening. Do the scripts carry more (hidden) meanings to the person saying them?

Thanks again to all who have commented, and to those who intend to, thank you in advance.

Em types for an audience in Tampa, April 2013Em types with Pascal