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:

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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

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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?

Letter #2: The Boy Who Didn’t Sleep

The Second Letter

Dear Parents (of newly diagnosed children with autism),

I mentioned in my last letter that I have another son with autism. His name is Sage and now he is 10 years old, and doing amazingly well.

He is also a twin to Hope, who does not have autism so (in autism lingo) we call her an NT (neuro-typical).

Sage was about 2 years and 7 months old when we discovered his autism.

He suddenly stopped sleeping.  I am guessing you are familiar with this as well, as for many parents, it is the first thing they complain to the doctors about.

Sage stopped sleeping during his nap-time first.  He would play instead, so we called it "quiet play time" under the idea that you can't make anybody sleep, but you can require a quiet time.

Well, the sleeplessness then expanded into bedtime, and this two-year-old would stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning-- literally running from one side of his room to the other side, crashing into it and then repeating the whole sequence over and over and over until he collapsed out of utter exhaustion.  Then he would sleep between 4-6 hours on average at night.

The longest he stayed awake in one stretch is 72 hours, when we were on "vacation".  At home, he would often wake up after sleeping just a couple hours,  get up and play and never go back to sleep again.

Those were very, very hard days that all ran together in a sleep-deprivation induced fog for all of us. We had no idea he had autism at this point, but as we did research on toddlers refusing to sleep, we discovered a supplement called Melatonin; wonderful, over-the-counter hormone that most people produce in their own bodies in amounts necessary to sleep. But children with autism do not, and they need supplementation.

We had already tried Benadryl, which did not work.  In order to get any sleep at all, we ended up tucking him in bed at the end of his bedtime routine, and then just laying over his legs so he couldn't get up and run around. It sounds, well, restrictive and mean...but it wasn't; it is what his body needed in order to calm itself.  Sage couldn't do it on his own. We'd have to do this for hours in order to make sure he was fully asleep or he would get up again.

We were exhausted, confused, scared and at our whits end.  We had his twin sister to take care of, as well as their little brother, Stevie, who was only 2 months old and had just started sleeping, when the sleep boycott began for Sage. 

The Melatonin was a miracle-help (not a cure, but a big help) for Sage. The first night we gave him some he fell asleep within an hour of bedtime! Relief was in sight, and we could not have needed it more!

We learned later about weighted blankets, which provide proprioceptive input to his body--something he didn't perceive and needed added input.   I am so glad to be able to share this information with you in the beginning of your journey!

As a pre-schooler, during sleepless nights, Sage would flip his bed frame around the room, tip it up and climb the rungs like a ladder. (Like I said in my first letter, I'll believe anything you tell me because I have seen the unbelievable in my own child!) He tore apart his room this way, and so for safety reasons (fear of the bed flying through the 2nd floor window!) we had to disassemble his bed and have him sleep just on a mattress on the floor for a while.  Later, when he was around 5 years old, we found a massive twin bed. It is made of heavy wood and we figured he couldn't flip that bed so we got it for him and he still sleeps on it to this day! (We have, however, wished for a way to nail the bed to the floor, as he would scoot it around his room to climb on and do various things such as disassemble the ceiling light, or draw maps on the ceiling!)

At night, in order for the rest of us to sleep, we had to find a way to keep Sage in his room. He was known to run out the door to the house, and he had proven himself unsafe inside the house too. He had to be watched 24 hours a day, and that is not possible for a family--we need sleep!  So we ended up putting an eye hook on his door and locking it after he fell asleep. That way, we knew he was safely in his room and that we could finally rest.

We learned a few behavioral techniques to encourage sleep as well.  You probably already heard about the bedtime routine being established. We also made picture schedule routines for him, so he could follow along.  We quickly realized that English was not his first language--not only that, but he seemed to have no first language at all to base things on. He functioned purely on visual cues; he had no idea what we were saying to him.  

So we found pictures online that we printed--or, we just drew simple stick-figure pictures ourselves, laminated them (because he loved to shred everything in sight) and used that to show him (as opposed to telling him) his bedtime routine, and what was happening next. It had things like: Put on PJ's, Brush your Teeth, Read a Book, Listen to music, Tuck in, Turn off the lights, Say Prayers, Go to Sleep. We would check off each thing as we did them (dry erase markers work well on laminated items!). This was absolutely a God-send. Sage loved his picture schedules!

And just to offer some encouragement about the future, in case you think you are doomed to never sleep again (like we thought!), Sage (now age 10) sleeps close to 8 hours a night on a regular basis, with just a couple days a month when he wakes up early in the morning (between 2-4am) and can't get back to sleep, and a couple days when he has a hard time falling asleep.

He is old enough now to know to stay in his room, and play quietly if he can't sleep. We made a list of things that are alright to play with, to help him make quiet choices without waking us up. (Dumping a large bin of K'nex will wake an entire house!)

I hope this letter has offered you encouragement in knowing you are not alone in this sleeplessness, and that there is hope. Things will get better as your child grows up. Even if he or she doesn't ever sleep well, they will learn "the rules" of night time and chances are, they will thrive on following them.  

Your day of rest will come, too.

Until next time,