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Dr. MacDonald's Program- Communicating Partners

By Linda Rau


    What do we do, Lord? This is a question I’ve asked over and over since our youngest two children were born with DS.

Jacob and Jonathan were "fearfully and wonderfully made" within my womb just like our other three children, but life has presented so many challenges for them especially in the area of speech.

    Let me tell you about our speech journey with them so far.


    When Jacob and Jonathan were preschoolers we enrolled them in an expensive, very intensive program that covered PT, OT, academics and speech, along with their older brother Sean who needed help with reading. It was a program we could do at home which intrigued me since we chose to home school Jacob and Jonathan as we did their two older sisters and brother.

    The program was great for Sean, but too challenging for Jacob and Jonathan. Through supportive staff, I learned a lot about discipline, PT and OT, but the academic portion was too difficult. We weren’t working on communication, just oral-motor exercises and vocabulary building. My main interactions with them were flashcards and other directive tasks.

After three years of using this approach, I knew we needed to do something different. A big clue came the day Jacob and Jonathan both hid from me under the kitchen table when I wanted to do flashcards.

    I needed to get back to play and having sons that wanted to spend time with me. They liked playing with the rest of the family, but mom had become too directive. I didn’t want their life to be one where they were constantly told what to do, and that’s what I had ended up doing.

    A series of circumstances lead us to a visit with Dr. Jim MacDonald, a professor emeritus of Ohio State University with over 30 years of experience "showing parents that they were their child’s best language teachers."

We went home with the assignment to imitate and to take turns with them, and do this through their favorite activities.

    I loved the favorite activity idea as we had never tried that before, and I knew this way they would let me into their world.

    Jonathan, who was six years old, loved the computer so I started copying his actions and taking turns with him playing Blues Clues Treasure Hunt game. We had so much fun trying to find the treasure together and he gave me lots of eye contact.

I controlled the mouse on my turn so he had to tell me where to go. He started saying, "This way" and pointed the way to go. It was the first time we had connected for an extended period of time.

    Jacob, who was 8, loved watching movies, so we would watch a portion with him, pause it, and act it out together. We also played with stuffed animals the same way he did.

Upon our next visit to Dr. MacDonald, he asked what we had done to make Jacob and Jonathan so much more interactive with him. Getting into their world through their interests had made a noticeable difference in a few months time.

I loved the way Communicating Partners (CP), involved the whole family; in fact, Dr. Jim said its success is up to the family. He showed us what to do and then we put his five CP (Communicating Partner’s) strategies into practice. The strategies progressed from:

Interacting non-verbally through imitating actions,

To communicating with sounds,

To developing a personal language through books and everyday activities,

To having real conversations,

On to civil behavior.


    We used Dr. MacDonald’s Before Speech manual, and then progressed to his First Words manual. These manuals taught us how to do the techniques of balancing, matching, responding, turn-taking, and waiting through our daily activities.

    Each family member began doing one activity a day with each boy. When everyone did their part, Jacob and Jonathan interacted at least 5 times with different people. This avoided monotony and burnout. The boys interacted a lot more when we involved them in our daily activities. This way the focus was not on their speech but on the activity, and interacting came more naturally.

    I remember Dad (a master at play) making shadow monsters on the wall. They all took turns making monsters with lots of imitating and monster growls.

Before college, Bethany involved the boys in her music interest: playing the piano, dancing, and singing favorite worship songs.

    Our oldest, Kristi, loved sports and involved them in basketball and football.

Now that both girls live away, they communicate with the boys over the phone and write e-mails in a CP way. Sean used to spend many hours in the back seat of the van in the middle of his brothers. This was a perfect time for him to imitate and play with the boys. Now he works out with them after breakfast. We have the joy of knowing them better, and the boys are learning a lot through our conversations.

    One of my favorite interactive times with the boys, has been having conversations with books. I would read a page or two to Jacob then we would pretend to be the characters. We took turns talking like the characters and ad-libbed with our own imaginations. This helped me see how Jacob thought, and it opened us up to some great conversations. His eyes lit up and he really loved connecting with me.

    With Jonathan we began interacting with storybooks by acting the pictures out since he wasn’t talking much. Curious George books were Jonathan’s favorite. After reading a page we would practice articulation by saying high interest words together and acting out the page we just read. After reading a page about George chasing the man with the yellow hat, I (the man) chased Jonathan (George) around our ping-pong table as he made "oo-oo" monkey sounds. Along with experiencing the concept "around", this was fun sounding practice, and we had a great time interacting.
    Recently I’ve come to realize the best communicating partners are right here in our family, as they care the most and will be life-long partners no matter where they go. But as our older children got busy and moved, we had to find new partners for the boys. We found high school and college students who desired to work with Jacob and Jonathan.
This year we have a 12 year old boy from our church playing with the boys once a week. Mrs. B (alias Libby), a special ed. teacher, also spends one morning a week with us. One morning after coaching her for a few weeks in CP methods, she set aside her agenda, got down on the floor and copied Jonathan’s actions and sounds. It was the first time they’d really connected, and they’ve been close friends ever since. She enters their world first by joining in their activity, then both boys want to do the learning activities she’s brought in her bag.

    I realized Jacob and Jonathan needed to try their communicating skills out in public more so we started volunteering at the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home. Rather than walking around visiting people which would put pressure on our guys to talk, I offered our help during the activity time. Our visits have become enjoyable for the residents; some treat Jacob and Jonathan as they would their grandchildren, coaching and getting excited over their progress in throwing a ball or whatever else we’re doing. Even though they don’t always like going, once we get there they have fun and they’re learning other people have challenges, too.

These ideas spring from hours of counseling with Dr. MacDonald as well as getting ideas from others on his Communicating group on, and prayer.

    Looking over the past fourteen years with Jacob and Jonathan, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We’ve tried lots of different and sometimes expensive therapies, but due to its success, family involvement, and wealth of information, Communicating Partners is the one we’ve stayed with the longest.

    When we started, Jonathan was pretty isolated but is now initiating contact with people and raising his hand to do "Jonathan talk" in a group. Jacob had a few "school" words or words for needs, but was not conversational. Today he was telling me what to make for supper tomorrow night and he loves having meaningful conversations with us.

Our journey is not over. Some would say this process of becoming a communicator is taking a long time. To me, the best things in life aren’t instant. They are homemade or homegrown, and that takes time. In the same way, our dream for our two sons to someday carry on a conversation with whomever they want is taking time. It’s a process we will continue no matter how old they are. And as we daily work on our communicating goals with Jacob and Jonathan, doors of communication are opening for them, with us and now with others.


    Having Jacob and Jonathan has made James 1:5 come to life for me. ("Ask God what to do and He will gladly tell you…") I’m learning to daily ask the Lord, "What do I do?" God has and will continue to answer that question. Whatever your situation, ask the Lord what to do, and He will show you. That’s an adventure in itself!


Linda Rau is beginning to work with families, helping them to learn the Communicating Partner’s program. For more information contact Linda @

For free information and practical guidelines on encouraging communication with your child, look @  . Dr. MacDonald’s new book, Play to Talk, A Practical Guide to Help Your Late Talking Child, is designed for parents. (2007 James D. MacDonald, Pam Stoika, Kiddo Publishing, Madison, WI)