When most of us think about becoming parents, our dreams include the sweet things our children will say out loud. We imagine the cute babbling noises, the pet names our children will invent for their favorite blanket or toy, the "I love you's;" we know that we'll look back...in twenty years or so...and laugh at those innocent social blunders our little ones will make in front of strangers.
When it becomes clear our children won't be using verbal speech, those dreams are dashed. We are left without much direction, because most of us are only familiar with traditional speech, or perhaps sign, as a means of communicating. It feels pretty overwhelming and it's hard to know where to start. Our family was in that same boat, even though my own mother was a speech-language therapist and I taught special ed. The world of non-verbal communication is pretty small, but the navigation isn't so bad. There are some amazing speech therapists around the world who have dedicated their lives to helping our kids and they have developed creative ways to help our kids communicate even without speech. I am deeply indebted. These brilliant pioneers have helped me adapt to a world of non-verbal communication.
The very best first teachers, though, are our own kids. [Warning: my bias is going to show here, as my child development background shows very strongly.] ALL kids start life communicating without verbal speech. Have you ever heard a newborn spouting off full paragraphs? Of course not! They learn to make little signs to us--cries, smiles, coos, waving arms and kicking feet, longing looks--and we respond by giving them what we think they need. Over that first year, they shape our responses and we shape those signs. While we surround our babies with an abundance of talk, song, stories, we don't expect them to repeat these back to us just yet. We learn to read our babies' expressive signs. Together we learn to communicate without words. This is what non-verbal communication is all about. It is fairly intuitive...and it carries over into more "standardized" non-verbal communication. While it may feel daunting to think about helping your child develop a method of expression that fits outside the mainstream, try to view it as an extension of what all children do instinctively. We are just expanding on that.
There are physical and cognitive limitations to deal with, of course. Some children have the ability to point or touch while others cannot control the movements of their hands. Some point eloquently with their eyes while others have no vision. Some wish to convey abstract concepts early on while others will be rooted in concrete thinking for a long time. Just as we individualize our responses to our newborn infants, so we will be individualizing for our children as they grow.
The place to begin non-verbal communication with any child is with the mindset that he or she is already expert at it. And really, we as parents are not too bad at reading those early signs. It isn't all that foreign or mysterious. It is our job to help them shape their expressions so they are more easily understood, and there are tools and techniques available to make that happen. That isn't so bad, now, is it?
Tomorrow we'll take at look at materials you can use for touch or eye gaze responses. I'll bet some are things you are already using...