No More Talking Mum!

In my previous blog “The Way We Roll” I wrote the following: “For my son pictures are more easily processed than the spoken word. He just ‘gets’ it when I show him a picture or use visuals to schedule out the plan for his day (like a visual diary). The pictures seem to just ‘stick’ in his mind easier than words. He continues to improve in his ability to understand, retain and follow verbal instructions…but visual supports are his number 1. They also help him to calm down if he is upset about something, and are far more effective than me or someone else telling him to calm down.”

A fellow blogger kindly asked if I could explain more about this, in particular the highlighted part…here goes…

What I have found both in the literature about autism and from my own experience with my son is that external systems, structures and routines that are represented in a visual way can greatly assist him in providing order and structure to his internal world. Often my son and I sit down together and ‘draw’ out the events of the day. This has the ‘flow on’ effect of helping my child to remain calm and emotionally regulated. Visual systems can take many forms and serve many purposes. The visuals themselves can be photos, drawings, cartoons, icons, words, numbers and actual objects. Temple Grandin is just one example of an adult with autism who explains her visual way of thinking in her book “Thinking in Pictures”. She writes the following:

I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage…I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it. One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills. When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different. In fact, I did not realize the full extent of the differences until very recently. At meetings and at work I started asking other people detailed questions about how they accessed information from their memories. From their answers I learned that my visualization skills far exceeded those of most other people.”

I am absolutely one of the language based thinker Temple writes about. I do not excel at the visual spatial skills she referred to. My son however is brilliant at directions, is amazing at doing puzzles and unbelievable at computer games. His verbal skills do not come as naturally. If I was to ask him how old he is there is often a long pause and maybe a 60 to 80% chance that he will answer: “I am 4 years old”. We have been practising answering this question for months now. He definitely knows he is 4 years old. He absolutely has the ability to say those 5 words in a sentence. It just requires effort for him to access that language from his mind and then to connect it to his mouth and speak it out. It is part of the mystery of autism. My son is a bright boy, but he struggles tremendously with his verbal (expressive and receptive) skills. This is a big deal given that we live in such a verbal world. It can also lead to frustration when you have thoughts, needs and ideas that you are having trouble communicating.

When I say I use visuals to help calm my child I have a sense that I am ‘speaking his language’. When I refrain from using verbal language I am avoiding placing any extra demands on my son. Processing language when he is upset is placing extra demands on an already stressed body and mind. More recently my child has even said to me on the odd occasion ‘No more talking Mum!’ It makes me giggle when he says this but I am quick to oblige. So when I want to help him calm I draw a quick sequence of pictures on a ‘megasketcher’ or ‘magnadoodle’ as they are sometimes called. I put this in front of my son and wait quietly next to him. I do not talk. Soon or later he has a look and when he does I just point to each picture in the sequence. Sometimes he might say what the picture is, sometimes I might say (quietly) what it is, and sometimes I just silently point to each box.

The scenario could go like this: My child is upset because Daddy is going to be late home from work. The sequence of pictures are telling him that he will have a bath, then we will eat dinner, then he will go bed, and after he has gone to bed Daddy will come home. My son gets all that from some (badly drawn!) pictures. He is able to easily process that visual information and calm himself. I may also offer him a quick cuddle and then we carry on. Not every time, but most of the time it helps. I see it as being similar to my need for a diary. Some days I don’t need it but other days I need to know what’s going on either to help carry me through a difficult day (crossing off each item as I go) or just because I can’t seem remember what I am meant to be doing at what time.

My son’s visual way of thinking is different to how I think, but it’s not been too difficult for me to understand and make accommodations for him. All I need to do sometimes is to just stop talking, keep a pen and paper handy, or even have a ‘megasketcher’ nearby!


3 thoughts on “No More Talking Mum!

  1. Thanks for your explanation Karen.
    I have had a few students with autism in my class over the years, and they really do work more productive with visuals. But what I have found is that many other students work better with visuals.

    Every morning in my Year 6 class I write on the board in dot points what we are going to do throughout the day. Each subject is written in a different colour. Then for each subject I write of list of items students will need. As each task is finished I circle the dot points to indicate it is completed. The same is done with the items needed. This helps my kids with autism. The other day, one of my other students asked me why I hadn’t put my list on the board. At a meeting with a boy who I was disciplining told me he likes the list I write on the board. As I learn how to enable people with autism, I am also enabling others in the process.

    Karen on a side note, as your son gets older he will delight in making fun of your drawing abilities, just as my students make fun of my lack of drawing abilities.

    • Wonderful to hear Linda! I feel so encouraged to hear about teachers like you that can incorporate strategies into their classroom routines that help children with autism and also realise other children benefit as well. Need many more teachers to know and do this!

  2. Karen, this is just a wonderful post and I’m just learning all about this. We have/are in a few difficult situations lately, My boy not being safe when crossing the street (and visuals came in so handy). We had The littliest one in hospital yesterday as an emergency thing (he is ok now) and my boy is going into have grommets inserted on Thursday. Any tips on explaining this visually as he was very distressed when Mummy had to hold the baby, baby was crying inconsobly etc etc for so long yesterday and I want to prepare him for the stress ahead on Thursday. I say stress not because of the op so much as him understanding the strange situation and helping him to feel safe even though he will be anxious. I’m learning to be calm in these situations (although never easy) but I worry about his anxiety which he can’t really communicate to me and he can’t ask questions like “what is happening, or what are they doing Mummy” even with the simple part like going to the hospital and I’m not initially allowed in recovery which I might push a bit on the day.

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