Thursday, August 9, 2012

the other lion: breaking down communication barriers

My name is Erika and I blog over at the other lion about myself and my son, Punkin, who has fragile x syndrome. I have been a ParaEducator (aide) in a special education preschool room for nearly 8 years now.

A common difficulty with children who have autism or fragile x syndrome is answering questions. Many children become so anxious at being addressed directly that they freeze up or sometimes, as in the case of my son, act out. I wanted to offer a simple piece of advice in case you have a student or child with severe anxiety or who simply struggles to answer questions. 

One day my son was playing with some strips of paper, which he called sharks -- he was just flapping his hands and watching them move -- and I asked him a question. He refused to answer, and for some unknown reason I asked, "Does shark know? Hey Shark, what did Punkin have for lunch?"


"Oh, yum. What else?"


"Sounds delicious."

And that was our new method of communication. He gave up the sharks and moved on to a Woody doll, who when asked the questions on a preschool assessment, earned Punkin seven more points than when he answered alone.

I would still often ask him directly," Punkin, what color is this?" Many times he would hit me in response, so I would switch to asking his object and get my answer. These days he doesn't act out as much as he just plain ignores me, and his object of choice is a Lighting McQueen car.

There are days, of course, when I don't have to ask McQueen because Punkin willingly answers -- those days are more frequent now. I also use these comfort items, such as McQueen, to show Punkin a new task (taking a shower) or to help him complete a non-preferred task (cleaning up toys).

Some other tips:

1. Don't demand eye contact. My son hears everything I say, even when it looks like he isn't even attempting to listen. Eye contact can be a trigger for those with autism, fragile x, and sensory disorders. Instead of focusing on your words, they are overwhelmed by sensory input. Because they don't know how to process the input and deal with it, they become scared and uncomfortable, which leads to escape behaviors (hitting, kicking, running, or curling up in a ball).

2. Sit next to children instead of across from them. This lessens the expectation for direct eye contact and allows focus on the work at hand.You might even try allowing the child to continue to play with a preferred item while you ask questions. Make work into play. "You have a puppy? Can your puppy point to something red?"

3. Give them plenty of time to process the question.

4. Try a fill-in-the-blank prompt. If you ask a child, "What did you eat for lunch?" and they don't answer, prompt them with, "I ate a ____."

5. Be patient

For a time, these puppies were a comfort object. While Punkin never wanted me to read to him, he was willing to have the puppies "read" instead.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful suggestions, Erika! I always love reading the helpful insights you've gained from your experience. I pinned your post to my Special Needs Board at


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