Pictures, Autism & Creative Language: Using Pictures to Increase Creative Language Use

 Note: This post was orginally published as a Guest Post on Joy's Autism Blog. Check out Child Talk readers for more informative articles as well http://www.talkingkids.org/

 Over the past thirteen years of working as a pediatric speech-language therapist, I’ve found that pictures can be a highly effective tool for working with children who have a diagnosis of autism. Children with autism are often highly visual and concrete learners; pictures have a way of slowing language down and making it more concrete. I use pictures in a wide variety of ways, but today I want to share with you how I use pictures to facilitate multi-word phrases with children who are just learning to use language creatively.

Most children with autism use echolalic speech. We think that this is because their brains process information as whole chunks—something we call being a gestalt learner. As a result, many of the children I work with have learned whole phrases that they use without actually understanding that each of the words in the phrase has individual meaning. For example, I’ll often see young children with autism say, “do you want to swing?” when they actually mean “I want to swing.” They do this because this is what they’ve heard asked of them when they were standing in front of a swing that they wanted to swing on. Not understanding that each word has specific individual meaning, they just repeat the whole phrase they heard in an attempt to communicate what they want.

One of my strongest beliefs as a speech-language therapist is that we need to teach children with autism that they can create meaning through putting words into a wide variety of short sentences. This is the generative aspect of language that makes it so that we can all create sentences we have never heard before, and it’s an essential aspect of language development. Without it, children are left to memorize sentences for specific situations and this highly limits their language skills.  When I work with children with autism, I make sure that they are using a wide variety of two-word phrases (see my list of early developing two word phrases here).

 As a speech-language therapist, I will ofen use pictures to show relationships between words in phrases so that children can actually see how changing words changes meaning.  Once they get this idea, the possibilities are endless! The actual pictures and words I use with a child vary depending on that child and his interests, but the general process I use goes a little something like this:

First, I find a situation where a child needs to create specific two-word phrases to communicate his specific wants. I look for a situation that is highly motivating for a child, one in which each specific phrase would be important to that child. Take, for example, a child who *loves* to play with a ball and hammer toy. His ball and hammer toy has a green ball, a red ball, a blue ball, and a yellow ball.  and he knows which ball he wants. Given this situation I would:

  • Make a picture to represent “ball” as well as pictures to represent each of the colors.
  • Place a Velcro strip on the front of a binder, and put Velcro on the back of all the pictures as well.
  • Get out the ball and hammer toy and place it on the floor next to the pictures.
  • Hold up the balls and allow the child to reach for one so I know which one he wants.
  • Quick create the phrase on the Velcro strip that matches the ball he wants. Say, for example, he wants the green ball. I would put the picture for "green" and the picture for "ball" next to each other on the front of the binder, creating a small picture sentence ("green ball").
  • Point to each picture as I say the word in the phrase (“green ball”).
  • Have the child imitate me.
  • Give him the green ball.
  • Repeat the process, exchanging the color word on the velcro strip to represent the color ball the child wants.
  • As quickly as I can, I back off of prompting him to create the sentences and let him create the sentences on his own.
  • And, as quickly as I can, I get rid of the pictures and let him just use his verbal words.

The ball activity is just one of hundreds of activities where something like this would work. You might use this strategy to teach your child to create the phrase “eat + (food item)” or “watch + (movie)” or “play + (name of computer game)” or “go (location).” The key lies in finding an activity that allows you to teach your child that he need to mix and match words together to create his own sentences that have meaning to him. Once he understands the power of creative language, he’s well on his way to being an advanced communicator.

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