Issue No. 32, August 2011
As was his language so was his life.
The People in Your Language-Depleted Neighborhood
Who are the people in your neighborhood?
Are you humming along? To a generation of children (and their parents) who grew up with Sesame Street, those words ring familiar as the title of a song that was practically an anthem in its time. If you’re one of those children or parents, you know the answer to the musical question: the people in your neighborhood “are the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street each day.” In the pre-compact disc era, my kids had cassette tapes of the song that they played until the oxide literally fell off the tape, reducing Ernie to a drunken slur (which they loved just as much). I recently asked a young parent if he remembered the song from his childhood, whether his own child watched Sesame Street now and if The People in Your Neighborhood was still part of the show. He lit up; of course he remembered the song! And yes, his son watches Sesame Street. But The People in Your Neighborhood is no longer part of it.
The young dad’s answer confirmed a sad hunch that had come to me a few days earlier as I ran typical round of morning errands: we’ve stopped talking to the people in our neighborhood.
For many parents of children with autism, improving our children’s delayed or impaired ability to talk is near of the top of the priority list. I can never forget how Bryce’s early struggles with speech challenged his ability to socialize, impacted his emotional health and obscured his cognitive capabilities. On that long road to developing functional speech (see my July newsletter for text of his graduation address), one of the first pieces of advice our speech therapist gave us was to work hard at maintaining a language-rich environment around him. We learn much of our speech imitatively, she said, and a child not frequently exposed to other speaking people will develop language much more slowly. Parents and language professionals should actively seek settings where a child will be exposed to typically developing kid talk and to everyday conversation.
I don’t consider myself adept at small talk. Chitchat with strangers is difficult and sometimes even stressful for me. But everything is a matter of degree. Bryce occasionally pulls me up short by openly admiring the (perceived) ease with which I exchange light conversation with store clerks or other brief-encounter folks. While this seems like no more than baseline communication to me, it clearly is more than that to him, and it has led us into discussions about how even the most banal pleasantries help us connect with others; the weather is a popular subject because it’s something we all share. With practice, we can learn to untie our tongues by finding other commonalities to comment upon, such as the items we buy (or don’t buy), the colors we wear, the holidays we celebrate, the events in our community.
Wait—did I say “with practice”?
I did. Conversational speech, of any duration, is a learned skill, and often extraordinarily more so for children with autism. The essential component of any learned skill is practice, practice and more practice. And that is why it came to me on that morning round of errands, why it is that small talk remains a challenge for our kids, and how it has come to pass that we don’t talk to the people in our neighborhood. My morning was a potent example. I got cash from an ATM; I didn’t talk to a bank teller. I scanned my groceries through the U-Check-It; I didn’t talk to a live checker. Our library now has automated checkout; I didn’t talk to the librarian. I mailed a package at the Automated Postal Center without talking to a clerk. Bought movie tickets through the Fandango dispenser. I’d bypassed at least half a dozen of what, not so long ago, would have been opportunities for human interaction. Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton was recently quoted as saying that the scarcest resource of the 21st century, “after water and food and all of that,” will be human attention.
A language-rich environment? More like a language-depleted landscape.
Automation and electronic communication have their immutable place in our culture. But if we value the stimulation, joy and functionality of conversation, we must teach our children, by example, to come out from behind their computer and phone screens and practice talking to others, actively looking for avenues by which we can encourage our children to become conversational. Our speech therapist’s advice about creating a language-rich environment came at a time when the use of language hadn’t yet been appropriated by screens, when being social included vocal inflections, facial expression and/or body language. You know, kinda like Skype without the screen. Of the many parent-teen conflicts my husband and I expected to face, we could never have dreamed we’d be considered counter-culture because we wanted our children to speak to other humans.
Sooner or later, our kids will have to talk to the people in their neighborhood, because some relationships cannot be relegated to a screen—the doctor, the dentist, the bus driver, the hair stylist, the flight attendant, the policeman, the firefighter, the clergy, the lifeguard, the piano teacher, the coach, the lawyer, the judge. Seemingly trivial small talk lays part of the foundation for being able to speak to others in situations wherein there is no alternative to face-to-face communication—and for situations wherein, it is enjoyable to do so.
So let’s restore some of that language-rich environment. This excerpt adapted from 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s will get you started.
From Chapter 2, Communication and Language
Maintaining a language-rich environment day to day is one of the best ways parents and teachers can nurture speech and conversation development. Here are a few simple ways to do that.
Ellen on the Web
Join the discussion and keep up with my latest on Facebook
Visit me at www.ellennotbohm.com
Got blog? Yes, I do guest shots. Got book group? We can hook up by phone or Skype. Got show? Web, radio and podcast interviews available via phone or Skype.
Book excerpts on website
Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
If you’ve read my books and feel inclined to share your thoughts with others, please consider posting a review on my book pages at www.amazon.com. It’s easy to do and you don’t have to post your real name.
Please forward this newsletter to anyone you feel might share an interest in our kids with autism. New subscribers can sign up at here.
©2011 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies