Communication is an active partnership between people that involves more than words. We communicate with each other using speech, gestures, touch, and facial expressions. Successful communication involves both understanding and being understood by others.
A child with special needs may communicate in ways that are difficult for other people to understand. Your child may not be using any words, but when she takes you to the cupboard you know that she wants a cookie.
Understanding how your child communicates and the reasons why she is communicating can help you to develop her strengths and teach other ways of communicating.
How a child communicates:
We’ve already mentioned that there are various ways to communicate such as using gestures (e.g., pointing, reaching), words and facial expressions. Here are some examples of ways your child may communicate:
- looking at, reaching for, or pointing to an object, activity, person or picture
- pulling another person toward an object
- moving closer to an item
- facial expression
- eye contact
- imitating sounds or actions
- using words
- screaming or tantruming
- displaying behaviours such as running away, hitting, or biting
- using hand signs (sign language)
Your child may use the same way of communicating for a variety of reasons. For example, she might scream when excited or when trying to avoid eating certain foods.
Why a child communicates:
There are many reasons that we communicate with each other. Some of the reasons your child may communicate include:
- to ask for something or for an activity
- to ask for comfort
- to ask for information
- to protest (showing what she does not want)
- to greet
- to share an interest
- to express her feelings
Helping your child understand language
A child’s first learning takes place through experiences involving seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Usually children understand many words before they start to say their first words. Providing your child with opportunities to hear the same words associated with the same situations over and over will help to develop that understanding. Your child may look at, or reach for, an item that you name before she is able to say the word. For example, when you say “milk” to your child, she may look at her bottle because she associates it with the word. This demonstrates her understanding of the word.
You can help your child understand you by:
- Being face to face with your child when talking to her.
- Using gestures, objects, or pictures with your words (e.g., pat a chair when saying “Sit down” to clarify what you want her to do).
- Naming what she is doing or interested in (e.g., say “Jessica is painting” while she is doing this).
- Giving her a related word (e.g., “Up, up” when your child is building a tower with blocks).
- Speaking slowly and clearly using a few consistent words (e.g., “Eyes in” when you or your child places the eyes into a Potato Head toy).
- Emphasizing the important words (e.g., “want juice”).
- Telling her what is in the environment (e.g., saying “bus” when she is looking at a bus going by).
Helping your child communicate
Once your child starts using words, she may imitate what you say or use independently. At first, the pronunciation (the way she says the word) may be incorrect. Remember that it takes time to learn to communicate and it can be frustrating for parents and children.
You can help your child express herself by:
- Giving her time to respond to you – ask once and wait.
- Copying her words and actions.
- Interpreting what she is trying to say (e.g., if she says “oh-oh” pointing to something that fell, tell her “Fall down”).
- Encouraging your child to finish your sentence by leaving out the last word (e.g., “The wheels on the bus go _____”).
- Responding to her attempts to communicate – comment on what she says.
- Offering choices (e.g., “Do you want milk or juice?”).
- Adding to what she says to you (e.g., if she says “dog”, you say “big dog”).