There are many different classification systems available for looking at the purposeful uses of communication. Models are primarily of interest to researchers and professionals within the field of speech language pathology. This article, however, is a hybrid listing of aspects of communication that are especially important to assess and track with children/students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The article is designed to give a basic orientation to people outside of the speech pathology profession because these are the people who will spend more time with the child than the speech pathologist. Awareness of what to observe can contribute volumes to the development and implementation of a program for a child with ASD. No one person has to feel that he or she must master all the information and become an expert observer or data taker. Everyone is part of a team and the objective is to have a variety of observations that will help develop a more comprehensive picture of a child’s skills.
Before looking at types or purposes of messages from the child, it will be important to observe and understand about how intentional the child’s daily communication is. By intentional is meant:
- Does the child EVER deliberately signal a message to others? It is easier to answer this question if the child engages in very direct, observable behavior. For example, does he look toward people, even briefly, before signing, pointing, gesturing or saying something? He could also take someone to the location of the item that he wants. If he seems vaguely aware of the other person who needs the message, however, he may still be intentional. Even if he is not looking directly at the person, he may have used peripheral vision to check if someone is around. More observations might be needed in case of the latter.
- Do the adults and other children in the child’s life predominately need to observe what he is doing and make a guess at what he may or may not want? This means the communication partner does all the work and has to learn to “read” the situation. This is not intentional communication since it is not deliberately signaled to someone.
- What percentage of the child’s messages each day are intentional?
- Is there any pattern to the types of messages that are intentional vs. non-intentional?
- Is the child more or less intentional with specific people, in specific locations, within specific activities, or at specific times of the day?
Examples of Intentional (I) vs. Non-intentional (N) Communication:
- (I) Jake sees that the teacher has a new toy on the table. He goes to the table, looks briefly at her, she says “try it” and he grabs it.
- (N) Tim sees the new toy on the table and goes and grabs it.
- (I) Jake takes his teacher by the hand, walks to the cupboard, and points upward. (the teacher knows his favorite toy is kept in that cupboard).
- (N) Tim wanders around the room and goes over to tug at the handles of the cabinet; he does nothing to indicate he needs help; he is determined to meet his own need of getting a specific toy.
- (I) Jake gives a “break” card to his teacher to request some down time.
- (N) Tim screams and throws things after an intense morning; his teacher thinks he needs a break and directs him to a quiet corner of the room.
Means of Communication
The child will have to use some way of sending others a message. It does not mean the messages are always clear or there is no guessing. The intentional messages are deliberately targeted for someone whereas non-intentional are not. Things to observe and share include the following:
- How does the child communicate intentionally? (see list that follows)
- What form or means of communication is used when the message is non-intentional (e.g., a teacher, aide or parent notices a behavior pattern, attaches meaning to it, and goes to intervene or take action)?
- Does he or she use one intentional/non-intentional means more than others? What else is used? (It is good to have a variety of ways of communicating).
- Are any intentional/non-intentional means more effective than others?
- What are the least effective intentional/non-intentional means used?
- Does he vary the intentional/non-intentional means by person, situation, or location?
Various Means of Communication and Examples
- Vocalizations—sounds, grunts, unintelligible speech, shouts
- Understandable appropriate speech or echolalia (repetition of the words of others)
- Behavioral—pacing, self injurious behavior, picking at sores, stripping off clothes, aggression
- Body language—facial expression, going limp or rigid
- Gestures such as a yes/no headshake, point, push away, or made-up gestures
- Sign language—whether correctly signed or not
- Communication display or single picture/words—a point to, or exchange of picture, or word card
- Communication device—electronic display that produces voice output or not
- Handwriting or computer typed messages
Examples of Intentional (I) and Non-Intentional (N) + Means of Communication
- (I) Signs “help” as he looks toward aide.
- (N) Signs “help” when no one is in the room; does not look around for a person.
- (I) Gives picture card to teacher in order to get popcorn.
- (N) Flips picture card in repetitive manner, discards it, and reaches for popcorn.
- (I) Presses button of electronic communication device with voice output to request puzzle. Looks toward teacher and walks to help self since no indication that this was not OK.
- (N) Presses button repeatedly on an electronic communication device and fixates on the action. After playing with it, he tires, and gets up to go get something else.
Purposes of Communication.
The topic of purpose can be looked at in two ways. First, what does the child accomplish by communicating a message TO others through some form of communication and secondly, how does he respond to the same purposeful message when provided to him FROM others? So, for example, can a child request an object? What happens if a person requests an object from him? While the second question is important, this article will only focus on the first question (i.e., the impact of the child’s messages TO others).
It may be easier for the non-speech pathology person to have noted the characteristics of intentionality and means of communication before addressing the element of purpose. Sometimes the purposes are very obvious and other times, it may take trial and error and/or consultation with others, to figure out the exact message.
The following two categories are not inclusive of every purpose for communication. They basically reflect the common types of communication that are part of a repertoire of a young child under the age of five. A few other references at the end can be used to add more detail. It is important to know what communicative purposes a child with ASD is using so new purposes can be taught. While requesting objects is the frequent goal of early intervention programs, requesting is not the primary function expressed during conversations. Expansion of the child’s repertoire of purposes can occur while teaching use of some of the means of communication outlined in the previous section.
Group # 1: Overall Purpose—Regulation
When communication is used for regulation, there are two elements: 1) the child is interested in meeting his needs, and 2) he will attempt to regulate the actions of others to help him meet his needs or to help keep himself in his personal comfort zone. In the latter instance, he may protest violations of his routines, lack of information about pending changes of activities, refusing tasks that he considers difficult or boring, and so forth.
The teacher/parent/or whomever will want to observe things such as: 1) What outcome is the child trying to achieve? 2) Did he initiate the action or did someone cue or prompt him; if so, how much prompting was needed, and 3) Did he achieve his desired outcome? Examples of often desired outcome include: