What is Autism?

If your child is struggling to communicate, then autism may be one of the topics that you want to find out more about. There’s a lot of scary and negative descriptions of autism on the internet, which is unfortunate and unnecessary.

Autism is fundamentally a difference in how someone experiences and interacts with the world around them. If you’re not autistic then an autistic person’s behaviours may be hard to understand. That doesn’t mean that we have to view all these differences as a problem or a disorder.

In this video, I talk through the main features of autism without the doom and gloom.

If you search up a diagnostic definition of autism, you may come across mention of the ICD-10 and the DSM-5. These are the two big diagnostic manuals that aim to classify and detail every medical condition out there.

The main features of autism that these diagnostic manuals describe are the following:

  1. difficulties with social interaction and communication
  2. restrictive and repetitive behaviours, activities and interests.

We can describe these features without the negative perspective:

  1. A difference in social interaction and communication.

Research on the double empathy problem is really important here. We used to think that autistic individuals struggled to understand how other people are thinking and feeling. We would talk about ‘poor theory of mind’. What we know now is that this ability to empathise is actually a two-way difficulty. It’s almost a culture clash. Whilst autistic people can struggle to read the emotions and thoughts of a neurotypical people, it goes the other way too. Research shows that neurotypical people can struggle to understand the emotions and thoughts of autistic people. We’re also learning that this social communication challenge that we describe, isn’t so evident when autistic people are socialising together.

I acknowledge that lots of autistic children that I meet as a speech therapist do struggle to communicate. A relevant point here is that we need to focus on facilitating successful multimodal communication – giving them access to every tool available to help them communicate for all kinds of reasons.

  1. The ability to focus deeply on something of interest.

A key point of relevant research here is the theory of monotropism. This describes a high level of focus and attention on specific things. Some autistic people will describe a strong pull towards areas of interest, can make it hard to shift attention to a different activity, to stop what you’re doing or talking about to shift topic or listen to someone else. Monotropism can explain the pull to give lots of detail in their talk. I meet children who can find it hard to give a one-phrase summary of a story, but they can recall lots of incredible details.

In addition to these elements, we need to acknowledge that many autistic people often have a different way of processing sensory information. Things may feel to them very loud and harsh, or muted and barely there. Sometimes we see people who appear to be sensory-avoidant or sensory-seeking. This is their attempt to regulate their experience, to manage when their sensory system is overloaded or underfed.

As a speech and language therapist I aim to be pro-neurodiversity in my practice, which means helping autistic children to better understand their unique communication profile and helping all the people around them to understand this better, so that we can all make adjustments and figure out how to communicate together successfully.

Some of the children that I meet view toys and play in a different way. Here’s some ideas on taking a pro-neurodiversity approach to play.

If you’d like to learn more about supporting your child’s early communication development, then check out Toddler Talk.

Asking questions: how to avoid overwhelming your child!

We’re talking about the Blank Language Levels today (formally the ‘Language for Learning’ model). This simple framework breaks questions down into different levels of complexity. It’s hugely valuable for language development because we can apply it to all sorts of activities with children. One we know which level a child is at, then all the adults around them can focus on using questions at a level that supports their development, rather than being too easy or too hard.

How to ask questions that encourage language development

Level 1: Naming
This covers very simple questions that require a child to understand the name of objects. E.g. ‘What’s that?’ ‘Where’s the…?’

Level 2: Describing
At this level, children start understanding descriptive language and so can talk about things in a little more detail. Questions include ‘What group does it belong to?’ ‘What does it do?’ ‘What are its parts?’

Level 3: Storytelling
This is a huge step in any child’s language development. Being able to talk about events and understood stories is a key part of how we all operate in the world. Here’s a specific activity to start working on this skill.

Level 4: Reasoning
‘Why’ and ‘how’ questions are some of the trickiest questions we can ask a child as they require so much verbal problem-solving. There’s lots more elements to this level of language, but being aware of when you use these two questions is a powerful start.

The Blank Language Levels is one of my most popular workshops. It’s super-practical, with a clear roadmap for helping your child. People always leave fired up to start using new strategies with their kids straight away. Find out more.

Social Skills: It’s not about what you say

When I first qualified as a Speech and Language Therapist, many moons ago, I was introduced to the work of Michelle Garcia Winner and Social Thinking. But, it wasn’t until I attended a Social Thinking conference, many years later, that I really grasped how useful these ideas really were. Hearing her cover so many of the key topics was really helpful in giving me a better understanding of how all of the vocabulary and frameworks tie together. My favourite idea is the Social Competency Model.

Social Skills : it's not about what you say

To find out more about the Social Competency Model, you can join this free webinar hosted by Social Thinking.

From S to Spiderman: The 6 Stages of Speech Therapy

There’s no doubt that learning to speak clearly is a surprisingly complicated process. When I deliver workshops on speech development, we talk through the individual skills involved and discuss how these typically develop. And as we start to think about all of the careful listening, processing, planning and muscle movements involved, we often find renewed respect for how much our children are learning in these early years.

When a child starts Speech Therapy sessions, we work through many of these individual aspects of speech development, so that a child can build their skills and master new sounds and words over time. This video gives you a brief rundown of the typical steps involved, and answers the common question: “If they can make the /s/ sound, why can’t they say Spiderman?”

The 6 Stages of Speech Therapy

Does your child struggle with some particular sounds? Which ones are they trying to figure out at the moment? For a few simple ideas to get you started, check out this post.

Great Books to Read Aloud With Your Child

Father reading with children

Sharing books with your child is a fantastic way to boost their language and social understanding. Children who are read to when they are young are more likely to grow into confident independent readers. Add to that the simple pleasure of snuggling up together to share a book and you have a perfect excuse to explore together the great wide world of books.

February plays host to World Read Aloud Day, an initiative first set up by LitWorld: ‘empowering young people to author lives of independence, hope and joy.’ I regularly share books as part of my speech therapy sessions, though rarely as a simple ‘read aloud’ exercise. Often, I’m using them as a more flexible prop to inspire conversation and play, or to look together for words with a particular sound that we are practising.

Whilst books can be a great springboard for creative play and conversation, some books really lend themselves to reading every word aloud. I’ve gathered a few suggestions here:

The Book With No Pictures – B. J. Novak

"The Book With No Pictures" cover
"The Book With No Pictures" open on table

This is such a fun and hilarious read. Without any pictures, the beauty of this book lies in the telling. The reader is told to ‘say every word’, tapping in to a child’s love for making adults say silly things. Watch your child’s eyes light up as this book has you trying funny voices, singing rhymes and reading nonsense words. Check out the author sharing this book with a group of delighted kids.

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy – Lynley Dodd

"Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy" book
"Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy" book open on table

The first of a large range of dog adventure books. With timeless illustrations adding character, Dodd’s genius lies in her ability to build a catchy, building rhyming phrase. I’ve shared before the importance of rhyme for young children and this is a perfect example. You might like to pause before the end of each word to give your child a chance to guess the rhyme.

Momo and Snap Are Not Friends – Airlie Anderson

"Momo and Snap Are Not Friends" book
"Momo and Snap Are Not Friends" open on table

In sharp contrast to Hairy Maclary, this story consists only of sound effects. It’s a wonderful example of how much can be communicated with barely a word. As you share the pages together you will see how Momo the monkey and Snap the crocodile meet, argue and compete before uniting against a band of hungry lions. This is a fun book to take turns reading as one of you can be Momo and the other Snap.

Dinosaur Roar! – Paul and Henrietta Stickland

"Dinosaur Roar!" book
"Dinosaur Roar!" book open on table

A deceptively simple book, with no more than two words per page, Dinosaur Roar actually includes some great ambitious vocabulary. It’s a fun way to explore descriptive language and opposites. The beautiful pictures include every dinosaur imaginable, so if your child is a dinosaur expert they will likely teach you a thing or two.

What about you? Do you have some favourite books you return to again and again? I’d love to hear your recommendations as I’m always on the hunt for fun books to share.

First picture image credit: Freepik

5 Gift Ideas for Under 5s

Baskets of toys

Whether it’s Christmas, a birthday or a simple ‘just because’, it’s fun to keep an eye out for gifts for our young ones. Here’s a few gift ideas to spark their imagination.

Grimm’s Rainbow

Grimm's Rainbow toy

I love the flexibility of these rainbow pieces. There’s a beautiful balance and lightness to each one that encourages a huge variety of play. Great for construction and experimentation, the pieces are also fun to use in creating small worlds, be it a doll’s house or zoo. This rainbow was found at Myriad Toys.

A Superhero Cape

Boy wearing superhero cape

If I could have a super power I’d choose to fly. Whilst Edna Mode from the Incredibles may famously warn against capes for real superheros, they are still great fun for imaginative play. The elements, ‘earth, air, fire, water’ often come up in superhero conversations with children, offering a good excuse to discuss nature and science. I found this cape at Not On The High Street, but there’s always the DIY option!

A Mud Kitchen

Mud kitchen

Designed and built here on the Isle of Wight, these little kitchens are perfect for making mud pies or serving up a mighty mud roast dinner. If we have a white Christmas, they’d be a great place to make snow cones! Available to order from the Glorious Muddy Kitchen Company.

A Favourite Book Character

Tigger soft toy

Anyone who knows me will know I love to gift books at Christmas, even more so with a soft toy character. It’s fun to put together little story sacks with props from each story, whether it’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea or Paddington Bear. There are a variety of companies, such as StorySight that put together ready-made story sacks, though you’ll likely find many of your favourite story props at home already. Cup of tea anyone?

Little Bus Mini Lotto

Little Bus Mini Lotto cards

This simple lotto set has been in my therapy bag quite a lot over the last month. Not only practical and portable, it also has cutest animal passenger pics, offering lots of opportunity for conversation. Orchard Toys have a huge variety of fun board games that children enjoy and are worth checking out if you’re on the hunt for a board game to entertain the younger members of the family.

So, there you have it: a few gift suggestions to add to the list. I’m hoping to make many of my gifts this year, though I’ve no doubt I’ll find myself in the bookshop or toyshop soon enough. However you choose to celebrate, I hope you enjoy all the festivities of the season.

Image credit: Designed by Freepik