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Damon Murtha
BY Damon Murtha
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Increasing Verbal Interactions with Your Minimally Verbal Child

Most of us take for granted the ability to have fluid, seamless verbal interactions on a daily basis. This is likely due to the fact that many of us learn the skill of speech with little to no effort. It “miraculously” just occurs. Consider, though, that for your minimally verbal child, these “simple” interactions can be extremely frustrating and require an enormous amount of work. The recent success of one of my students who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) inspired me to share some thoughts and techniques to help others like him enjoy increased success.

Perspective and attitude are two concepts that can have an enormous impact on the success of a minimally verbal individual.

Perspective

Understanding the perspective of your child who is verbally challenged is fundamental. Both parents and professionals need to understand that there is a valid reason why the child is not verbally communicating. Some possible reasons include:

apraxia (motor speech disorder)
• dysarthria (muscle weakness affecting speech production)
auditory processing disorder (difficulty with receiving, analyzing, organizing, storing and retrieving auditorily presented information)
• receptive and/or expressive language disorders
• psychological disorders
• other possibilities

I have heard many comments about minimally verbal individuals over the years such as “He can say it when he wants to” and the ever-frustrating “He is just being lazy.” Unfortunately, the people saying these things are not taking into account all of the factors and challenges that the minimally verbal individual faces. So I have attempted to educate these people regarding those barriers.

It is necessary to inform the “typically verbal” person that for those with speech deficits, simple verbal communication is extremely challenging. Therefore, verbal dialogue is not necessarily their natural or go-to move, especially if they have been communicating with other modalities, such as with sign, gestures, or alternative augmentative (AAC) devices.

When the minimally verbal person has ASD, some follow-up questions I often ask are:

• Did you practice the word/words in a variety of contexts?
• Did you create an environment that encourages and empowers the individual to use his or her speech?

If the answer to these questions is no, then there is someone being lazy, but it is not the individual who struggles to verbally communicate. This is an endeavor that requires patience, time, and effort. This is why practicing a word or words in a variety of contexts is important. Individuals with ASD often have challenges with generalizing concepts, and in order to be successful, they need to feel that they are in a safe, encouraging environment that enables them to use their speech.

Attitude

As Winston Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” I find increased success when an individual feels good about himself when attempting verbal communication. This person should not be over-corrected on sound errors or told to repeat something over and over again. Instead, the process should have a more natural feel, keeping the minimally verbal individual engaged and motivated to attempt more verbal production rather than discouraged from future attempts at interaction.

Four Techniques to Encourage Verbal Interaction

1. Practicing core words in context

Select a motivational activity and associate simple verbal language with it. Here are examples of some activities you can try with your child:

Eating
Assistive supports: AAC device/static board, sign, gestures
• Have an item like chips in view. Have your child point to the item and request it.
Word/words practiced: want, eat, want it, want that, want eat, want more, done, all done, like it

Going for a walk
Assistive supports: sign, gestures, AAC device/static board
Word/words practiced: go, go walk, up (starting from sitting position), be back (tells message to another family member), open, open door, go there (ask to go which way), go down (at stairs), go up (at stairs), done, all done, stop

Watching a video
Assistive supports: AAC device/static board, sign, gestures
Word/words practiced: on, off, turn on/off, push on/off, play, play more, stop, turn up/down (volume), done, all done, want more, like it, see it

2. Pairing Associated Responses

• “Here you go” ⇒ “Thank you.”
• “Thank you.” ⇒ “You’re welcome.”
• “Nice job.” ⇒ “Thank you.”
• “What’s up?” / “What’s going on?” ⇒ “Nothing much.”
• “Have a good day/night/weekend.” ⇒ “You too.”

3. Fill in the blank

• Ready, set, ___. [Go]
• 1, 2, 3 ___. [Stop]
• You are ___. [Finished/done]
• When a familiar song is played, select a word or phrase. For example, Happy Birthday to ___. [You]

4, Assigning a word for your child to say during reading

If reading a story about whales, for example, every time you come upon the word whale, stop reading and double tap your finger on the word to signal your child to say it.

In Summary

Helping a minimally verbal child to speak is not an easy task, but the rewards are worth it. Teaching a few words can have a dramatic impact, empowering individuals to have more control of their environment and improve their quality of life. Remember to be patient and creative. Keep in mind your child’s perspective and put yourself in his or her shoes. Most of all, stay positive and kind. These are some of the best interactions we all can have.

Damon Murtha

Written on May 16, 2017 by:

Damon Murtha, M.A., CCC-SLP is a licensed speech-language pathologist with many years of experience, in both a specialized school and private practice, helping individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He is the main ‘Composer’ behind Autism Rockstars (www.autismrockstars.com), a new quickly growing community whose mission is to help people with ASD live life to the fullest by sharing essential quality programs/lessons, materials, information and tips in an easy to use format. Follow Damon and the Autism Rockstars journey on Facebook and Instagram.
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