Speak The Language: Pictures

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Have you noticed that kids with autism often don’t seem to process auditory information, but instead rely on what they see?  They seem to be unable to hear, but that is far from the truth.

When my son was a toddler, if I called his name he’d act as if he couldn’t hear me calling him.  But if I were to quietly whisper nonsense sounds, he could hear them a mile away.  This was baffling as new parents, not knowing about autism.

We had no idea what was normal and what was not.  We had his hearing tested and sure enough, he could hear sounds most people could not. He just didn’t know his name. He didn’t know that anything had a name, except for letters, numbers and shapes.

Once we figured out that he was born without a language, we made use of pictures. After all, he learned by what he saw:  if I put on my shoes, to him that was a firm promise that we are going outside to play.  If that didn’t happen, then there were tantrums to deal with.  If we drove toward Lincoln Street, then that was a sure promise we were going to the park. Telling him we were going elsewhere was of no use.

To make life easier for everyone, we took a bunch of pictures.  Pictures of things… like “Outside”, “Juice”, “Puzzles”, "Park".  Then when we were going outside, I would show him the picture of  our backyard and say, “Do you want to go outside?”

Highlighting the word and pointing to the picture made a whole lot more sense to my boy. He quickly learned how to receptively “get” pictures. And we were finally communicating.

We also used pictures to teach him his name, and the other family members names. One of my favorite memories of these early years is when I was quizzing him on our names by tapping his sister on her head, or tapping Daddy’s head and I’d say, “Who is this?”

He’d answer correctly until I asked him what my name is. I said, “Who am I?” as I tapped my head with my hand.

“NINE!” He shouted!

“What? Nine?” I asked confused.

And then Daddy burst out laughing. Because he could see what I could not. By putting my hand on my head while standing up, My body made the shape of the number 9!

Learning to think in pictures helped us explain many things to him as he got older. From single words, to a picture schedule (or list of pictures “to do”), to sentences, to stories.  As soon as he got the concept of things having names, his language exploded.

  • He went from 0 words at age 3, to  5 word sentences by Kindergarten!
  • By 2nd grade he didn’t need pictures anymore (except for a picture schedule).
  • In 3rd grade, his Developmental Pediatrician said, “I can’t even believe we (her and my son) are having this conversation.  If you asked me before if he’d ever be able to have conversations, I’d have said, “I don’t know”. But here we are! This is truly amazing!”
  • And today? He is going to be entering 7th grade. He says as many words as he wants. He still has issues with pronoun reversals, but besides that his language is amazing (well, except for the bad words. Why do kids learn those so easily?).

There is a TON of information out there on pictures in the forms of PECS, social stories, pictures schedules, etc.  One of my favorite free resources is www.Do2Learn.com.

Here are some examples of what we did for our kids:

Early on, we used actual photo's of what we wanted them to do:


Then came first sentences:

( Beneath this sentence strip, would be pictures of commonly asked for items.)

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.01.23 AM


Schedule boards are just awesome, providing independence and structure:

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Then we had some social stories. Some were very graphic, some very simple. Here is one that worked very well:
Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.02.16 AM

and as he got older, his social stories became more cartoon-like:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.02.04 AM

and then, he started making stories for us!: Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.01.35 AM

And for your amusement: 
Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.05.24 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.01.48 AM


This is part 2 of a series on speaking the language of our kids on the spectrum. To read part 1, click here: Speaking The Language: Scripts

Coffee Time:

Let's help our new autism parents out with a lot of ideas!

How have you used pictures to teach your children?

Speaking The Language: Scripts

Speaking Language Scripts

Do you remember “Mr. Hollands Opus”? Back in 1995 the movie came out in the theaters.

It tells a story about a musician (Mr. Holland) who reacts bitterly to the news that son (Cole) can’t hear.  To Mr. Holland, music was the most important thing in his life.  His wife willing takes on learning American Sign Language, so she can teach her son and communicate with him.  But Mr. Holland doesn’t put much, if any, effort into learning his son’s language.

As the son grows up, and as Mr. Holland goes through many different trials of life, he does eventually learn sign language and there is a happy ending to the story when he sings and signs, “Beautiful Boy to his son.

As I watched the story unfold on the big screen (20 years ago! How can this be?) I was very put off that Mr. Holland would not learn sign language in order to speak to his deaf son.

As a matter of fact, when I think of that movie now (which I often do) the synopsis in my memory goes something like this, “Mr. Holland refused to learn how to talk to his own son. That is so rude.  He loved his music more than his son! He was a jerk.”

It’s interesting that my boys with autism seamed deaf at first. How one can have above average hearing and yet appear deaf, is a hallmark of autism in the early years.

It seemed like they didn’t know how to process sound so they disregarded all of it,  unable to distinguish between meaningful language, and background noise.  In a way, they were deaf. At least functionally.  They had to learn how to make sense of the sound-world around them and so rely heavily on visual cues.

Learning to speak the language of our kids is not always an easy task. In ASL and in other foreign languages, the language has already been created. You just need to learn it, which is easier for some than others.

But with autism? The language the kids speak is an original creation. There are no classes in it, there is no text book to go to to reference. You just have to learn the language of your child. 

In the past few months, Stevie found a YouTube series called Diesel Ducy is is all about elevators and road trips (an ASD kids dream come true).  He has been watching these movies over and over again. So I started watching them with him through the Apple TV.   By watching it with him I was  learning the script and style of the videos, and I remembered Mr. Holland.

And I realized that part of the way I communicate to Stevie with his language, is by learning about his special interests. Being able to insert scripts he knows from favorite shows communicates a lot to him. It shows I am listening, that I understand, and that I care.  It says I think his interests are important.  And, they are important to me because they are important to him.  It is a way that I can engage with him in a fun and playful way.

Or, not so playful but very functionally like in this example:

A couple weeks ago, knowing his scripts came in very handy.  We had in-home supports here, and Stevie did not want them here.  He threw a big fit outside and refused to come in.  As the scene grew more intense, so did his scripting (which isn’t *just* scripting, but full acting out of the scenes!).   In that particular script (Honey I Blew Up The Kid), the scenario always ends destructively.

After a couple failed attempts to lure him to the house, I decided to see if using his script would lead him inside. I said, “Remember at the end of the show, Adam (the 50 foot destructive toddler) comes inside with his mom and dad?”  He thought for a minute, and then I said, “So come on, lets go inside!” And he stood up on his own two feet and started to walk to the house.  I had found a way to enter his script, speak his language and get him to agree to come inside!

Coffee Time!

What ways do you communicate with your kids on the spectrum?

How did you learn to speak your child’s language?

Leave a comment to join the discussion!