Language Seen Developmentally: From Sensation to Speaking

Language is more than words: How to understand what the non-verbal child is ‘saying’ and to help him to move from gestural communication to speaking and making sense

  1. Do you worry about your child’s communication & delayed speech development?
  2. Does speech & language therapy not quite seem what your child needs at the moment?
  3. Do you wish someone could help you engage & tune in emotionally with your child?

The foundations of language development lie in gestural non-verbal communication, emotional attunement and being interest in exploring the world using the hands and in interaction with others.

Speech and meaningful use of words and language can only develop once these primary developmental foundations are in place.

Words, speech, language and gestures

The child’s gestures are his meaning. When a child begins to speak, words take their place alongside other communicative gestures, which are every child’s first language. He is talking to you in gestures: if you pay attention you can see his intention and ideas through his gestures.

A young child needs the repeated experience of being a ‘powerful communicator’ using gestures and non-verbal language successfully in order to ‘discover’ words and spoken language.

By focussing on the foundations of language development the Autism Home Consultant coaches parents to understand their child better, so they can help him/her to discover the purpose of making sounds and communication and words towards meaningful language development.

Nursery rhymes and action-songs

Nursery rhymes and action-songs are ideal ways to engage an ASD-child, or in fact any child, in shared attention and to help with sensory regulation, initiating communication and imitating actions, and a wonderful way to learn language, rhythm and social skills.

The rhythm and repetition of the tune, words and gestures help with shared attention and sensory regulation. They create opportunities for imitating actions, taking turns, eye-contact and to-and-fro intentional communication. They have a clear beginning, middle and end, which helps with the early learning of sequence and predictability and building a structure in your child’s mind. If you wait expectantly, your child will ‘tell you’ to do it again or even fill in the next word or movement.

Listening to singing and songs sharpens auditory discrimination, sequencing skills and memory while also encouraging vocal and rhythmic skills, which are part of the basic equipment for learning language. Songs and rhymes have a simple story line and therefore lay the foundations for the beginnings of storytelling.

MindBuilders’ Rhyme cards will give you lots of ideas for songs and pictures to talk about.

Every culture has their own traditional rhymes and songs that are full of feeling and ancient cultural memories. Ask your parents or relatives to teach you some of the old rhymes and songs from your own culture, so you can share them with your child and keep them alive.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have a question that I haven't answered here, then please contact me and I will be happy to help you.

Click on any of the questions

What is 'Language'?

Human language is not just a learnt behaviour, and it is much more than speech. Nobody taught the first humans how to talk! Human language evolved out of their gestural communication as an emergent property of the mind, i.e. humans began to use words and speech as a kind of add-on game to their gestural language. Initially as sound effects of emotional expressions like ‘Ah!’ or ‘Oh dear!’ or ‘NO!’ or ‘Hmm’ (for ‘I love it, or you’)

One’s mother-tongue or first language is the gestural non-verbal language that cannot be taught: it grows from the inside out as a result of making sense of the world and becoming interested in ‘ah, that’s what they call it’, i.e. in the context of loving and nurturing relationships of the young child with his/her parents or primary carers.

Would 'Speech Therapy' help him to talk?

Parents often think that daily sessions with a trained speech/language therapist would solve the problem. But even a trained speech-therapist cannot teach a child to talk! Speech therapists are trained to work with children who can talk, but have difficulties with their speech. They cannot teach a child, who is not interested in interaction with other people, to speak.

A child who is not interested in interaction or the world around them needs to learn to become interested, to focus and share their attention and to enjoy interaction with another person in play. S/he needs to learn to WANT to communicate first, using gestural non-verbal communication, i.e. to develop the underlying capacities of FEDL 1-4.

Even if the child can say some words, this does not mean that he will use them or that he understands what they mean. He needs first to catch up with the basics of communication, necessary for all subsequent verbal language-development. These develop only in interaction with another human being, and out of the child’s early communicativeness that takes place at home and needs no words. Speech therapy makes sense, once gestural non-verbal communication is in place.

How can I help my child's language development at home?

It is by actively exploring and experimenting and by ‘learning from experience’ that young children begin to make sense of the outside world and build a picture of their internal world. Without understanding how the world works, the child’s mind cannot build the necessary structures for thinking and language.

The Autism Home Consultant supports parents and carers in creating a rich and stimulating environment for your child at home that encourages active exploration, meaningful interaction and purposeful play activities towards meaningful use of language.

Language development is essentially an emotional not a mechanical or training issue. Language is above all a carrier of emotional communication and meaning, and so much more than just speech or words or names of objects. A child’s first language is in fact the GESTURAL LANGUAGE, i.e. emotional communication between child and family, often the child’s mother. This is where the child learns that he can make himself be understood.

The crucial initial step towards learning to speak is the co-regulated effort of mother/carer and child trying to make sense of each other’s gestures. Language development begins with the ‘music of language’, i.e. the tones of voice, gestures, playfulness and facial expressions. Both mother and child must be interested to read each other’s intentions and to pay attention to each other’s body language.

Listening to the child’s cues and taking time to figure out, what s/he might mean, is much more important than teaching. Familiar rhythms and routines provide a secure base for the child to pick up the emotional meanings of what is said through non-verbal communication. Words can be learnt easily once the child is interested in relationships and understands about shared gestural communication.

What developmental 'language-strategies' can I use at home?
  1. Look at what the child is looking at
  2. Use language in context, as the child will try to make sense of what he sees is happening around him
  3. Use gestural language to help your child to understand, i.e. so he can ‘see what he hears’
  4. Turn the child’s gestures into words, i.e. let him hear HIS gestures and ideas spoken in YOUR words.
  5. Don’t say ‘say’. Speaking comes from having something to say and knowing someone is listening who is truly interested and wants to hear it. Respond to your child’s GESTURAL LANGUAGE. Take the pressure off: don’t say ‘say’!
  6. Sprinkle ‘no talking dust’ on your playful interactions with gesture, body, facial expressions and tone of voice….
  7. Reduce complexity: Keep language simple (but without distorting your grammar), i.e. avoid long sentences,
  8. Maintain grammar, melody and flow: use correct language, i.e. don’t use grammatically incorrect language like ‘put in’ or ‘give cup’ as this affects its meaning and makes it actually more difficult to understand. It also feels patronizing.
  9. Repeat the relevant language or words in meaningful ways (i.e. not to ‘teach’ or ‘test’) and many different familiar situations
  10. Match language with child’s actions and feelings: be playful, engaging in 1-1 sensory and action games (shared attention), later also using toys (joint attention): Words + Affect + Action (WAA)
  11. Do what makes sense and what you usually do with objects, i.e. don’t put the cup upside down, - until child that putting a cup on your head is a playful game
  12. SLOW DOWN and keep a slow/moderate pace, so your child can follow and has time to process
My child can recite the 'ABC' and count to 20: will he now start to speak soon?

It is great to know, that his mouth is ok and he can produce speech like sounds.

But being able to list the letters or recite numbers is not talking.

Being able to recite letters or numbers before being a successful non-verbal and verbal communicator does not help a child to begin to talk or to learn how to communicate meaningfully with other people. On the contrary. It will make learning to read harder for him, as he will have to unlearn the letter-names and replace them with phonics. But it is also confusing as it distracts from the actual meaning of communication. Especially with children with autism there’s a risk that they can get stuck with the simplicity of repeating the sequence of ABC or numbers, which often leads to echolalia and ‘scripting’, INSTEAD of becoming interested in the meaning of words and what we say to them. It’s the ‘naming-game’ that is the beginning of real speech, i.e. the child’s pleasure in pointing at and naming everyday objects and finding out ‘what does mummy/daddy call this?’

What is 'Scripting' and 'Echolalia'?

A child who is taught to say words before being interested in or understanding ‘the power of communication’ or the game of non-verbal gestural back-and-forth communication is likely to use the learnt words repetitively or like a robot as in echolalia or by reciting learnt passages as in ‘scripting’.