Help! My Child with Autism is Stuck Only Saying "I want"

One of the most common problems I see in my practice is that kids are stuck using carrier phrases like "I want…"  or “I see…” We call these “carrier phrases” because you simply rotate different words into the rote phrase.

EXAMPLE: “I want ball," “I want playground," “I want juice."

Kids pick up these phrases somewhere along their therapy journey; typically from well-intentioned therapists who are trying to get children to start speaking in sentences. 

The problem is that kids sometimes get stuck in these carrier phrases and don’t fully comprehend their meaning. 

How did we get here?  

When kids have limited language skills, we first teach them how to request highly motivating nouns (e.g. “cookie”). 

The next step is to expand on those single words and <drumroll please> this is where the carrier phrase is typically introduced.

Educators are interested in expanding beyond single words so they embed learned nouns into chunked phrases, usually starting with “I want."  Once a child has sufficiently memorized “I want + noun,”  then a variety of other carrier phrases are typically introduced (e.g. “Can I have the…”, “Let me see the…” or “It’s my turn…”). 

The end result might be more overall words but the comprehension isn’t always there. 

How do you know there are comprehension difficulties? 

There are two red flags that can tell you a child isn’t comprehending these chunked phrases. 

Using multiple carrier phrases at one time

The first is when a child starts using ALL of their carrier phrases at once. I have a 6-year-old that I work with who loves playing with toy keys when he’s earned a break. To request the keys he will start by saying “I want keys.” If I pause and don’t give them to him right away then he might say “let’s play keys," followed by “I see keys,” “more keys” and “open the keys”. He rattles off every memorized phrase he knows because he’s not sure what the expectation is. 

Overgeneralizing one phrase

The second tell-tale sign of comprehension difficulties is when one phrase is overgeneralized in contexts where it doesn’t make sense. When I first started seeing the 6-year-old with a key obsession, I began by showing him a picture of a child jumping on a trampoline and asked “What’s he doing?” He responded by saying “I want jumping." The next photo: “I want driving car," and the next photo: “I want singing.” He simply memorized to put “I want” in front of everything he said because he was taught early on that he will get what he wants.  

Teaching chunked phrases is also problematic because we’re not breaking down these phrases into the most basic components. The phrase “I want” is typically taught together. However, early language learners don’t understand that “I want” is actually two separate words. Babies who are learning language go from single words (e.g. “juice”) to 2-words (e.g. “want juice”). When we skip ahead we don’t allow for valuable teaching moments for children to learn the difference between these individual words. 

What’s the solution? 

Core Words.

Not sure what core words are? I’ve already covered that in an earlier blog post and one of my videos

Core words are fantastic because they are the most frequently used words AND they allow children to easily combine words into novel phrases and sentences. 

Below I’ve listed 5 of my favorite core word combinations to teach instead of simply having a child say: “I want…” 

1.) “See it”

I tend to use this with iPad activities or preferred videos on YouTube. Start watching their favorite video and then PAUSE. Turn the iPad away from them and start modeling the core word “see” or “see it” as an alternative way to request watching the video. The nice thing about the word "see" is that it can also be used for commenting.  

2.) “Like it” 

Instead of having a child always tell us what they want, it’s powerful for children to tell us what they "like". I love this because commenting is powerful. It’s intrinsically reinforcing because when a child tells us what they like then we typically give it to them more often.  

3.) “Me/You”

I like to keep it simple when teaching personal pronouns since they can be so challenging. Instead of “my turn,” it can be effective to practice turn-taking with a simple “me” or “you” to talk about who will take a turn next.  

4.) “I do”

Children are often quite adamant about doing things on their own terms, so helping to teach a child say “I do” grants immediate independence. This is more specific than simply saying “I want." I make sure to contrive scenarios with materials and activities that a child is used to doing solo. When I intervene, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to declare their independence.  

5.) “No”

Nothing is quite as powerful as allowing a child an opportunity to tell us what they don’t want. “No” can easily be combined with a variety of fringe vocabulary as well as other core words (e.g. “no go," “no more," "no help”).  It also can be used to stop an activity that they really don’t like. 

Instead of teaching a child a 3-4 word carrier phrase that a child might memorize, start introducing core words to ensure true comprehension. Eventually we can build vocabulary skills so that a child can spontaneously say “I want ___” but they also will be able to say “you want," “don’t want” and “want more” because they truly understand the meaning behind these words.

If you're interested in core words then be sure to follow me on instagram or facebook because I'm constantly posting photos that can give you lots of ideas on how to incorporate more core words into the mix!

OVER TO YOU

Now---Would love to hear from you. Is your child stuck in the "I want" phrase? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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My Child isn't Listening: How working memory could be to blame (Part I)

Last week I got a phone call from a concerned parent. Her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, was having trouble following directions in the classroom. Teachers were getting frustrated that Sophia wasn’t listening and able to follow the classroom routine. She was easily distracted and they had to give her directions multiple times before she would follow through.

This mom felt frustrated with the school because she knew deep down that her daughter wasn’t a bad child. She tried to prepare Sophia for school every morning by reminding her to listen to her teachers and do a good job. But every day after school the teachers reported the same problems.

When I see a child like Sophia, who isn’t able to keep up with the class, my first thought is a working memory deficit.

Children with working memory weakness usually have trouble with the following:

-Following directions

-Paying attention

-Answering questions

-Recalling details

-Having conversations

What is working memory?

Working memory is an executive functioning skill. And it’s one of the most important skills a child can have. Essentially it's the ability to  hold on to information long enough to do something with it.

The kids who are struggling with working memory are easy to spot. They’ll be the ones in the classroom who are on their own, playing with toys, while everyone else is lined up to go to the bathroom.

Here’s what typically happens with a child who has trouble with working memory.

The teacher gives a direction…. “Hang your coat up and then go sit on the rug for circle time.”

The child may hang their coat up but then forget the second direction ("go to the rug"). They might think for a second, now what am I supposed to do? But as they are glancing around they see that brand new puzzle they were playing with before recess. Instead of going to the rug they go straight to that puzzle and start playing.

In this scenario, it appears as if the child is deciding to go against the teacher’s directions and play instead of doing what they are told.

In reality, the child wasn't able to remember the expectation and then was distracted by something enticing.

Note: Preschoolers also have a hard time with impulse control, so it makes resisting the brand new puzzle that much harder.

You may also find that conversation skills are negatively affected as it can be challenging for a child to hold on to information long enough to formulate responses to a questions.

Testing your child’s working memory capabilities

 If you want to check whether your child is struggling with working memory, there are some simple tests you can try at home. The goal is to figure out how long they can hold relevant information in their mind.

In my practice, I typically start by giving directions with body parts.  Most children can follow simple commands like, “touch your head" and you can immediately evaluate their working memory. 

Then, I progress to combining two commands (e.g. “Touch your nose and then your ears”).

Next, I see if they can follow three commands (e.g. “Touch your nose, your ears and then your belly”).

Once I get a baseline of their skills then I move on to using toys, which are way more distracting.  Eventually I progress to coloring a sheet since these directions take a lot more time between the instructions and the actual follow through.

For example, if you tell a child to “color the dog blue and the horse brown” it takes a lot of time to find the crayons, color the dog, and then move on to the horse.

No one knows why working memory is adequate in some and inadequate in others. The truth it that everyone has differing strengths and weaknesses with their executive functioning skills.

Here’s the good news…

Once you figure out where a child’s skill levels are, then it’s easy to start targeted practice to improve working memory.

Interested in learning more strategies? In my next post (sign up to my mailing list here to make sure you’re first in line to get it!), I’ll share my five best tips for helping your child follow directions.

Over to you

Are you wondering if your child might have working memory issues? Leave a question in the comments below and I'll try my very best to answer it - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

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Teaching Your Child to Control Impulsive Behavior

Impulse control is the ability for children to resist impulsive responses and regulate themselves so they are able to learn new skills. Impulsivity can often lead to children having difficulties following teacher directions, sharing with peers and taking turns in conversation. Being able to control such impulses is an executive functioning skill that can be strengthened over time, so try incorporating these 4 activities into an every day practice!

Hand Squeeze: 

When children catch a glimpse of a toy they want, they often can’t help but immediately grab it off the table. To help children resist this urge, I encourage them to squeeze their hands together before I introduce an exciting new toy. Constant reminders of “squeeze those hands!” help children resist the impulse of grabbing the toy. You could also use a fidget toy like a squeeze ball, but I love the hand squeeze technique since they will always have this at their disposal. 

Take Control of Technology: 

Games on tablets or phones can sometimes exacerbate a child’s impulsivity with constant temptations of icons to tap, drag and push. To help children manage these urges, I hold the game in front of them and help them practice listening to directions. I always employ the “Hand Squeeze” technique so that they are able to self-regulate as they wait for a turn. For young children an app such as "Peekaboo Barn" works perfectly because they can hear an animal inside the barn and then have to wait for two to three seconds before opening the doors. As the child becomes better at controlling his or her impulses you can gradually increase the wait time for longer increments.  For older children you can use an app such as “My PlayHome” and give children specific directions for more sophisticated commands (e.g. “Open the refrigerator and take out the pizza”). 

Impulse Re-Do: 

Every child has moments where they act impulsively (think: running out of the room because they are thirsty). You can capitalize on these moments as a teaching opportunity by helping a child replay them with an appropriate reaction and response. If a child runs out of the room for some water, I take the child’s hand and lead them back to the table. We then sit down and replay the situation again. I’ll often lead the child through the situation (e.g. “If we need water, first we raise our hand and then we ask the teacher”), and then I help them practice the appropriate reaction. Teaching these “Stop and Think” moments will help a child learn to regulate impulses more consistently.

Practice Taking One: 

Helping children “Take one” is another game to help practice managing the urge to grab as many toys as their little hands can hold. This works great with toys that have lots of small parts such as blocks,  puzzles or small food items such as blueberries or popcorn.  Initially I give constant reminders to “Take one” before each turn and then fade these reminders as a child becomes less impulsive. Be sure to give lots of positive praise “I love how you’re only taking one at a time”. 

Is your child having challenges with controlling his/her impulses? I’d love you to share any tips or tricks you use in the comments section below!

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with impulsive behavior? Which methods have you found most useful to help your child with his or her impulses? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.