10 Essential Language Strategies

Human language is not just a learnt behaviour, but consists of complex social communications about emotional/ mental states, thoughts and ideas using symbols, representations and cultural meanings.

Shared attention

When a child begins to speak, words take their place alongside other communicative gestures he is already fully fluent with. It can not be the other way round, just as one cannot paint a house before it is built. The very beginnings of language lie in the moments when a mother follows with her eyes what her baby is looking at and joins him in this. For a long time, the adult needs to home in to whatever the child, or baby, is interested in, i.e. to follow the ‘contents of his mind’, his intentions and ideas. A child can only learn to speak and use language, once he has a firm understanding of the importance, and the joys, of such a mutual focus on a common topic, of ‘shared attention’. In a way, mother and baby are having a ‘looking-conversation’: the baby’s silent eye-pointing may be a question that says “Can you see what I am looking at?”. His mum may answer with “Yes! It’s a butterfly! A lovely butterfly! Oops! Gone! Where is it gone?”  All of this is the beginning of ‘social referencing’, required for all meaningful interaction.

Understanding how the world works

Without understanding how the world works, the child’s mind cannot build the necessary structures for thinking and language. It is only by ‘learning from experience’, by actively exploring and experimenting that young children can begin to make sense of and to build a picture of their internal world. Where children are deprived of active exploration of a rich and stimulating environment, for whatever reason, they may not be able to learn to talk, because talking is the expression of what is emotionally meaningful to us. Some children may not explore their environment because of physical or mental challenges, others because of a lack of play-materials to explore, lack of encouragement or too much passive distraction from the flickering of electronics, like computers, mobiles, videos and TV. But all of these children can learn, if we provide them with the play-materials that build up their ‘general understanding’ of the world, as described in ‘Every child can learn.’

Social referencing

In this way the baby gradually comes to understand that what he is looking at has meaning for his mum too, and she calls it ‘butterfly’. He comes to love sharing attention like that, and he wants to know what she thinks of things. He checks her face to see whether something is safe or dangerous, allowed or not, bringing a smile or a frown as response. This is called ‘social referencing’, the next stage on from ‘shared attention’. This is what autistic children find so very difficult, or fail to establish, and where the roots are for their not having learnt to talk. This is where we have to apply our nurturing, our most focussed attention, because without these foundations all other efforts will have little meaning and effect.

 Communicative Intent

Most crucial for a child to learn language is that the adult firmly believes in the child’s communicative intent, i.e. being so focussed on the child, that one interprets and responds to all his actions, gestures and vocalisations as if they were a clear message: to see everything the child does, even the tiniest movements, as deliberate messages from him (even if they aren’t!), all his utterances at least an attempt at communication, and to follow the child’s eyes to see what he has in mind and what he could mean, i.e. ‘follow the contents of his mind’.

WANTING to Communicate

Like every other child, the autistic child needs to learn to have a good time being, or mucking about, with another person. If it’s fun and linked to his inner feelings (affect), then he’ll want more. If he wants more, he’ll ask for it, – and asking for something is communication. At that moment he will be communicating, because he wants to, not because you are telling him. He will have a ‘good feel’ about communicating and saying ‘Hi!’, because it makes him feel nice and warmly connected with another person. A child who does not communicate, does not need to learn to say words, – he needs to learn to want to communicate. If he does not want to communicate, he will not speak, even if he did have the words and language to say it. And if he did want to communicate, but could not speak (like the deaf child), he would point to things, using eye-contact and gestures, to try to make you understand what he has in mind. Our aim must be to show him that communicating with another person is fun.

10 Developmental Strategies to help your Child to Understand Language:

  1. Look at what the child is looking at AND look at his face, so you can attune to his feeling state. Remember, the meaning of words is not in the thing, but in our minds!
  2. Use language in context, as the child will try to make sense of what he sees is happening around him
  3. Focus on using gestural language to help your child to understand, i.e. so he can ‘see what he hears’
  4. Say HIS gestures out loud in your words, matching your tone of voice to his feeling state, thus making it easy for him to link his own experience with your feelingful voice, understanding and words
  5. Reduce complexity: Keep language simple, i.e. avoid long sentences, but
  6. Maintain grammar, melody and flow: use correct language, i.e. DO NOT distort your grammar, as it distorts the emotional meaning (e.g. saying ‘Give cup! Give cup!’ is a command (and likely to provoke refusal) making the child feel like a computer being programmed, while ‘Can you give me the CUP, please? The cup over there. Your cup? Where’s your cup? Yes, your cup!’ feels like a friendly exchange between 2 human beings trying to figure out together, how to understand each other and the world.
  7. Repeat the relevant language or words in meaningful ways (i.e. not to ‘teach’ or ‘test’) and many different familiar situations. Make sure it feels natural rather than artificial, helpful rather than ‘teachy’.
  8. Match language with the child’s actions and feelings: be playful, first engaging in 1-1 sensory and action games (shared attention), later also involving toys (joint attention)
  9. 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
  10. SLOW DOWN and keep a slow/moderate pace, so your child can follow and has time to process

Find out more in my book ‘MindBuilders’ Play Manual’ https://autismseendevelopmentally.org/autism-books-ways-to-play/ 

A warm welcome from Sibylle Janert.

I look forward to discussing your concerns.

To receive occasional updates sign up here: