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Encouraging Speech and Communication in our Children with Special Needs

By Diane Ryckman

    The desire to communicate is the greatest motivator behind learning to speak. For our children with special needs, this desire is no less. It’s just that for some, learning to speak is so much more difficult.
For others it will not even be possible that they speak, but this does not mean that our child cannot learn to communicate at all. Rather it means we need to be on the look-out for ways they do communicate. Let’s build on these efforts to help them "say" what they want to get across.
Here are some ideas that we used with our son Andrew (Down syndrome) when he was beginning to learn to speak
When Andrew was two, he began to show frustration about not being able to communicate with us. We could tell he had a good understanding of what we would say to him, but just wasn't able to get out what he wanted to say to us. At that time we began to teach him sign language, and he was quick to learn the signs...he wanted so badly to be understood! When we knew what he would want to say (at the dinner table, pointing to something he wanted more of, for example), we would use the sign and say the word it represented. Soon he caught on to the signs. Every time he used a sign, we would repeat the word that went with it. In time we noticed that after he had learned the signs and used them for a while, he began to say the word with the sign (which helped us identify what the word was). The signing seemed to be a bridge to the spoken word for Andrew. Some of the signs Andrew used the most were help, more, all done, thank you, yes, up, book, drink, eat, outside… A good reference book for sign language is The Joy of Signing, by Lottie Riekehof.
Children with speech delays often need to hear a word many, many times before they will attempt to say the word themselves. By observing what words are most important for your child to learn first, you can make a point of using these words as you talk with your child.
With Andrew, we made up picture books of important words using photographs of family members, pictures of actions, favorite foods, and toys, etc. We would look at them over and over together, saying each target word and doing the sign to accompany it. This helped both of us to remember the signs, and provided visual, auditory and kinesthetic input for each word, encouraging speech as well as signing. Picture books or flash cards of words important to our child, can also be made out of magazine pictures cut out and pasted on card stock. The important thing is to review the words together often. For a child who is unable to communicate using sign language, this idea could be adapted to teach symbols that would be used with a communication board – something the child could point at to indicate what she wants to "say."
A few simple things to remember when encouraging your child’s speech development are model, repeat, and expand.
Model – let your child hear how a word should be pronounced.
Repeat – let your child know you understand what he is trying to say by repeating his word.
Expand – add one more word to expand what your child is saying (example: child says "ball", mom says, "big ball").
If a child gets "lazy" and just sits and cries, or makes noise instead of words, remind him that he can talk, and to use his words. Try to wait until he says what he wants to communicate instead of figuring it out and responding to his noise
In order to help with proper sentence structure and grammar, an easy yet effective idea is to make little booklets that model correct speech. As Andrew’s speech developed, he had this habit of saying "me" instead of "I" (me do it, me like it, etc), so I made up a little booklet of simple sentences all starting with "I like..." I printed each sentence out in large, bold print with one sentence on each page, then one of our daughters made a little cartoon picture for the next page, illustrating what the sentence said. Andrew loved it, learned to identify a number of sight words, and also learned proper grammar at the same time.
One very important question to consider with our speech-delayed children is, are they able to hear properly? Here is what one mom of a child with special needs, Becky (who also happens to be a doctor), recommends: "Pay attention to making sure your child can hear! They can't learn to speak clearly if they can't hear what we're saying to them.
“Some ENT's and audiologists may not be as aggressive about rechecking hearing as they should be, and it's up to us to advocate for our children. Especially while babies, they can't tell us they can't hear -- watch for clues: don't startle to sudden noises, don't follow you with their eyes when you're talking to them or when you're trying to get their attention. When they get older, they may turn the volume up on the TV etc., or they may talk louder because they don't realize how loud they are. Those are all signs to have their ears checked for an effusion (fluid in the middle ear) even if they don't have the fever, pain, or "sick" feeling associated with a full-blown infection. Anytime they get a cold and have a runny nose, chances are good that the mucous membranes lining the ear (which connect to the ones in the sinuses and nasal passages) are also swollen."
Another mom, Cindy, shares her advice about hearing: "I would encourage parents to ask and push about hearing aids if their child has problems passing hearing tests. James (almost 8 with Down syndrome) got tubes 5-6 times before they decided on hearing aids And I think that it was mainly because both ear drums now have large holes in them. He was only able to barely pass a hearing test right after he got new tubes. His speech has so improved with the hearing aids. I wish he had gotten them at 3 or 4yrs instead of at 6yrs."
There are a number of resources available to help with speech development. Books that give parents ideas that can be used at home are:
Language and Thinking for Young Children (Ruth Beechick)

The Language of Toys, Teaching Communication Skills to Children with Special Needs (Sue Schwartz)

Early Communication Skills for Children with Down Syndrome (Libby Kumin)

Ready, Set, Go: Talk to Me (DeAnna Horstmeier)

1st Straight Talk: A Parents Guide for Correcting Childhood Mispronunciations (Marisa Lapish)

2nd Straight Talk: A Parent’s Guide to Language Development (Marisa Lapish and Tom and Sherry Bushnell)

The video series Love and Learning is a simple, helpful tool for encouraging speech development. From a promotional flyer: "Love and Learning is an innovative technique for teaching language and reading skills to infants and toddlers...the technique combines the use of special audio tapes, video tapes and books with an easily achievable amount of parental involvement."

Many parents recommend materials developed by Dr. James MacDonald. Judy shares, "I've just started using Dr. MacDonald's First Words. It is in a workbook form, giving a small task to work on each day, cycling through them every 30 days. It's teaching me to use his techniques.
1. Waiting for Simon (age 8 with Down syndrome) to speak,
2. Giving Simon a word to use in place of nonverbal behaviors that he uses to communicate,
3. Making sure that I take opportunities in a playful way to let him initiate half of the conversation,
4. Incorporating new words into our day's natural activities."