Updated: May 26
If you are like other families in Northwest Arkansas with a child experiencing a disability, communication can be difficult. It shows up in a variety of ways, the most often is frustration.
Here at our counseling clinic, we have seen several families with children who are diagnosed with autism or another developmental disability.
One of the main questions families ask revolves around how they can improve their communication with their kids. I decided to reach out to a community leader in the field, Sarah Coffey, Director of AccessAbility at Grace Point Church to find out tips on how to have better communication with your child experiencing autism or another developmental disability.
Here are Sarah's tips.
(Sarah's response will be written in Italics)
A couple initial thoughts, my response is recognizing that autism can mean so many different things! The saying goes "if you've met one person with autism, then you have met one person with autism." Everyone was created in a unique way. So, my answers may benefit some but not others. A great place to start is finding someone who has autism and ask them about this specifically - self advocates are the best people to have this dialogue with!
have some families who just want to know if their child is happy or hurting, and there are others who want to know more specifics of the needs of the child (what is the activity they are wanting? Where do they want to go?)
Depending on what specifically you are looking to learn from this communication, these tips might be helpful.
We encourage you to use what helps and leave behind the ideas that don't!
1. Discuss the Possibility of a Talker for Improved Communication
A great place to continue the conversation of communication is by talking with the school district and one of their SLP's to discuss the possibilities of your child having an AAC device (an Augmentative and Alternative Communication device, whether that be digital or a physical board) that helps aid in their communication and encourages their independence.
This could mean first words for someone who is non-speaking or it could mean just a confidence boost to someone who struggles to explain how they feel. However, we do know that behavior is a form of communication, the actions a child uses communicates so much to us.
Be watching these actions, then use a communication aid to encourage the child in their confidence to show you what they are needing, what is frustrating them, or even what is making them excited! Parents of kids with autism (or any other diagnosis) have all expressed how much this communication support has made a difference.
The consistency of using talkers and modeling it for your child (the mutual use of it in conversation) has brought so much joy to the individual using it and their families!
Below is just one example of what a "Talker" might look like.
Image taken from usaspeechtablets.com/
2. Use Emotion Boards
There are emotion boards - that are just visuals and may show emojis that represent the emotions of happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc. with a picture of the individual that they can put next to what emotion they are feeling! This helps just support the individual in recognizing how they feel, and to share that with the individual with them.
3. Use a Choice Board
I love to use choice boards that offer two different visuals on it and the person you are seeking to understand better would pull one visual off and "select" their answer by placing it on a piece of velcro underneath the two options.
4. Have Some Fun
There is nothing better than just having fun with each other! People are brought together and feel safer when someone joins in on an activity that the other individual enjoys most. I encourage parents to do this very thing, while their child does self-directed play and the parents are able to join in for a bit and follow along.
Need some inspiration for fun things to do?
5. Join a Support Group/Community Group
We (Grace Point Church) did offer a community group for families in AccessAbility that almost was like a support group, but we wanted to bring these families together for the sole purpose of community with others who have shared experiences. We paused during COVID, and began providing respite for families again but they just wanted to use that time to get away for a date night/get groceries. Hoping to launch this community group again in the next few months!
Above all else, please know you are doing a great job being a parent and loving on your kids even on the most difficult days. We see you in that and are here to support you in any way we can.
Be sure to thank Sarah for her response!
We hope these tips will help you on your journey towards better communication with your child experiencing a disability. Let us know what has helped you to communicate better with your child in the comments!
If you are looking for more support for your child experiencing autism or another developmental disability, contact AccessAbility. They are actively assisting and supporting families in the Northwest Arkansas.
Sarah Coffey is the Director of AccessAbility at Grace Point Church and is passionate about rooting for people experiencing disability to be fully part of every community they are in. She has experience doing this as a minister for and with people with disabilities, working in special education, as a life skills trainer, and consulting of churches/organizations in how they can grow in welcoming all individuals. She lives in NWA with her husband, Tyler, where they enjoy being outdoors with their two dogs!