Lacking Conceptual Images
For people with normal speech development, it is very difficult to communicate without using concepts. Things are big or bigger, happy or joyous, under, over … the list is endless. The human mind is built on and works through the understanding of concepts. But for someone with autism, concepts are very difficult. Can effective communication happen without relying on the conceptual imagery everyone uses each day?
A Language of Concept
Language by its very nature is conceptual. We believe, because we have been taught and have seen the result, that words are truly representative of something. If you go into an ice cream shop and ask for a large cone, you have certain expectations that you believe the other person understands. Generally, people do understand, and if they don't, they may ask for additional information.
Concepts within language are an obstacle for children with autism. When a word is first learned, whether verbal or through another form of communication, the use of that word has a hard and fast rule: a dog is always a dog; a cat is always a cat. But red? That is very subjective. Ask someone to buy you a red hat and you will learn how many shades of red there are. Concepts such as “quiet,” “hungry,” or “tired” are even harder to grasp. Only time and experience can teach these lessons. Speaking normally with your child and using visual clues will help the process along, but there is no definitive method to teach a concept.
As a child with autism begins to learn speech, it is common for her to repeat words without using those words for any communication or meaning. This is known as echolalia and, as stated earlier, it is one of the distinguishing factors of classical autism. For example, a parent might show a shirt to a child and ask, “Is this your shirt or your brother's?” The response may be “Brother's.” This may not mean that your child has signed off on the property in question; she may simply be repeating the last word she heard. If you are in doubt, test by using the question again, but reversing the order of words. If she repeats a different word, you can be sure it is echolalia.
When talking to your child, use universal signs to help her understand. Spread your arms to indicate “big.” Mock shiver for “cold.” Use clues for your child to help her link the word with the object or action. As linkages occur, language will begin to make sense and communication will be more effective.
Echolalia is frustrating to parents because they can see that the mechanics of language, such as the voice, are working fine, yet there is no spontaneous speech. The child may repeat words she has heard during the day or words that are common to her routine. “Everyone sit down,” “it's lunchtime,” or “here kitty, kitty” are examples of phrases that might be said with no meaning attached. When your child engages in echolalia in response to a question, try to guide her to the correct answer and gently correct her. If she is playing alone and you hear repeated phrases and words, ignore them. It is not helpful to try to stop a behavior that is harmless; she is unaware this is an inappropriate social behavior.