Autism; Inconsistent Expressive Skills

Jun 22, 2022

Why is my child with Autism inconsistent with their expressive skills?

We see so many children in our clinic who have received a diagnosis of Autism, but for each child that means something different. For one child, this means they can’t quite ‘read the room’ whereas another child is nonverbal. What is consistent for all, is that the brain learns best when in challenge mode. This means, when a child is doing something new and challenging, the brain is in challenge mode and it’s making new connections! This can be used for good or evil. Here’s an example:

Your child starts speech therapy with a new speech therapist. They don’t like new people or environments and you aren’t sure how it’s going to go. They get into the therapy room, and the therapist prompts them to request using sign language, “more”, or “mmm”. Immediately, your child’s mind is in challenge mode. There is a new toy they are soooooo excited to try out but an unfamiliar adult is asking them to imitate an action or sound. They know how to sign for ‘more’ but are less likely to request it when a stranger prompts them. Their instinct tells them to tantrum or use ninja hands. (Maybe they get mad and tantrum to get what they want, or they try to grab it as quickly as possible.) In that instant, their brain starts to look for a solution in challenge mode. How we respond will shape how they perform in speech therapy moving forward and how they approach other challenges. If we give in to tantrums or grabbing, it makes that instinct stronger. If we consistently ignore negative behaviors and wait for intentional requests (verbalizations or sign language), we reinforce new instincts that support verbal communication! Yay!

What does this mean for you as a parent? Unfortunately, it means that your child is playing chicken with you anytime they encounter a challenging situation. The more consistent you are with your expectations and models, the faster they will create new instincts. This is best explained by ordering food at chipotle. When you order food, they present multiple yes/no questions as they go down the line of ingredients. When they ask, “Do you want protein?”, you don’t respond by grabbing at the chicken in the pan, or by whining. We give them a verbal reply immediately because it is an innate instinct. All types of communication have a foundation of a back-and-forth-flow based on cause and effect. If you ask me if I want beans, I say no. If you say guacamole is extra, I say no thanks. For a child with autism, any interaction can put them in challenge mode. As parents, supporters, and teachers, we have to be consistent in our expectations and models to promote positive and successful communication instincts. In the game of chicken, we can’t swerve!