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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Four Quickest Ways to Core Word Mastery (Part II)

In my last post, I described the difference between core words and fringe words, and talked about the benefits of teaching core vocabulary. This is the fastest way to help a child start communicating more effectively. 

If you’re new to the concept of core words then you might be feeling a little overwhelmed and not sure where to get started. 

Rest assured: This post will tell break it down step by step for you. 

1) Download my board

I use this communication board every day in my practice because it's such a great visual support to teach language.

I’ve kept the “Lite” version of the board really simple, with only 10 core words, so it’s a really good place to start, and a great way to encourage communication without needing to purchase an expensive device.

You can grab it for yourself here.

2) Focus on one word

Choose a core word of the week, or of the month. This will make things more manageable.

The words “Eat”, “play” or "go" are all a good place to start, so choose the one that might be the most motivating for your child. Then every couple weeks you can add a new word to the mix. 

I started working with a 4-year-old little boy with autism who is OBSESSED with a toy piggy bank that lights up and makes noises. 

He doesn’t have the dexterity to slide the button to turn the pig on and he was REALLY motivated by this. So that's why we decided to focus on the word "on". For the entire month,  I helped Mom find as many opportunities as she could think of to help him say “on”. 

After the first week Mom reported back that he was able to say “on” to turn the television on. And then the next week he told her that he wanted to turn the lights "on" and the water "on" to take a bath. The following week, he said he wanted to put a hat "on" and told Dad he wanted to sit "on" his lap.

Every week when I came back, Mom would be excited to tell me all of the new situations she discovered.

When you focus on one core word for an entire month it gives children lots of practice with one concept and it also gives parents a very specific and easy to achieve goal. 

3) Get your child to point, not imitate

Some children with autism are master imitators, but they have a hard time creating spontaneous communication. By pointing to a picture instead of telling them what to say, you are helping your child’s brain actively find a word on their own. 

Let me give you an example of how I  might do this at snack time.

You can start by modeling the word "eat" for your child to say (e.g. “Tell me what you want to ‘EAT’”) and  pointing to the word "eat" on the communication board. 

You keep saying "eat" and pointing to the communication board to help them ask for the snack.  

Then after you've done this several times, you pause. If they don't respond then you can point to the icon "eat" without saying anything.  Sometimes the child will point to the board after you and other times they might even say the word "eat".

The key is to reinforce every attempt they make at communication. 

4) Model core words constantly

Core words can be very abstract, so they take lots of exposure and repetition in order for children to start understanding their meanings.

When modeling, be sure to use your voice to emphasize the core word you’re working on: “Oh, do you want to EAT?”.

Focus on modeling core words all day long with the visual support of the communication board and be sure to create lots of opportunities for them to use the words you’re trying to teach. 

Remember my principle: “Inspire, don’t Require.”

Inspire your child to communicate by finding motivating activities but never force them to say a word or point to a picture. With enough practice and a highly motivating activity, children will start responding on their own!

Over to you

After you download my communication board, I’d love to know how it goes!

Does it make it easier for you to work with your child and get started with core words?

Let me know in the comments below.

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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Get from Single Words to Sentences using Core Words (Part I)

Parents often worry about their child’s lack of spontaneous communication.

They call and tell me they are concerned: their child is able to request but they are only using single words(e.g. “cookie” or “iPad”).

I started seeing a child a few weeks ago who was stuck in the “I want” phrase, unable to say anything else. Mom was trying to teach her basic verbs (e.g. “eating, running, drinking,”) but she was adding the “I want” phrase to EVERYTHING so that when she was putting words together and it didn't always make sense.  

For example, I showed her a picture of a child running and asked “What is she doing?”. She replied by saying,  “I want running”. This was a learned behavior: Put “I want” in front of every word.

When children reach a plateau like this, and are unable to put words together into phrases or sentences, this is always when I start thinking CORE WORDS.

So what are core words?

Core words are commonly used words that are useful in a variety of situations. They aren’t just nouns; they can be adjectives, verbs, prepositions … words that are high frequency, highly combinable, and used all the time.

Core words comprise 75 - 80% of the words in our day-to-day speech. 

The other side of the coin is what we call “fringe” words. Fringe words tend to be more specific to a situation, and are usually nouns.

They might be something like “elephant”, or “ice cream”. Great words to learn, but not necessarily useful every day in every scenario.

I have a child on my caseload who LOVES stoplights. Every day he loves to talks to me about stoplights. The word “stoplight” is a fringe word that he can’t get enough of.

The problem is there are so many fringe words and just not enough time to teach them. Unless the fringe word is incredibly meaningful to the child, it’s more efficient to focus on teaching core words simply because they can get a lot more use out of them.

I love to get kids started on core words like “eat” and “go” and “play” because you can use them in so many different situations. If we were at the zoo we might talk about the fringe word “elephant," but if the child knew the core word “go,” then we could use at the zoo, at school, at the playground…. the possibilities are endless. 

Core words simply give you more bang for your buck.

However, fringe words are still a good place to start

For children who are just beginning to communicate I always start with highly motivating fringe words. Fringe words are basic and very concrete. If your child loves to play with trains, helping them say “train” or teaching them to touch a picture of a “train” is very straightforward.

Remember: Choose words that are motivating for your child. For some kids it’s food, for others it’s their favorite toy. Some of my kids are most motivated by sensory games, so I focus on words like “squeeze” or “tickle”.

It’s important for children to understand they must communicate in order to get what they want. That means teaching them to try to say a word, activate a button on their device, or point to a picture on a communication board (download a free copy of mine here).

But fringe words aren’t the whole story

The problem is that most people focus on fringe words – i.e. nouns only - expecting the child to make the intuitive leap to sentences, but often they can’t do it.  Try making a sentence with all fringe words... you won't get very far. 

Some therapists begin teaching sentence building by helping the child to say “I want” or "Give me" in front of a fringe word. At first this seems like a reasonable approach, since they are building a sentence that makes sense in that context.

Unfortunately, this “I want” can become a learned behavior, as I illustrated in the example above where a child uses the “I want” phrase for everything. Our goal is to help children create spontaneous and novel sentences, not to simply memorize a formula. And once children learn this behavior, it can be very difficult to unlearn.

In fact, “I” and “want” are both core words, but it’s important to teach them individually, rather than as a unit, if you want to encourage spontaneity.

How to get started with core words

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 four best tips for working with core words.

But here’s some advice to get you started: two great core words to try are “eat” and “play”.

These core words are so easy to use in any situation and you can easily pair them with fringe words your child already knows.

Remember: It will likely take your child some time and LOTS of modeling to understand core words, since they are more abstract.

You’ll find that children might get confused at first with core words and say things like “eat ball”. If this happens, don't worry. Simply respond by saying “We don’t eat a ball, we play ball.” 

With lots of exposure to these new words,  children start differentiating between the categories of things we eat versus things we play with and eventually they will start understanding.

Over to you

Does your child struggle with spontaneous communication? Do they seems to be stuck in fringe words? Let me know what you’re finding difficult 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.