By Jillian Sherrodd
Silence. A concept that makes most people feel uncomfortable. A moment that is rare in this ever increasingly noisy society. Everywhere we go people are on their phones, music and television is on in the background and people are rushing around. We are accustomed to constant sound and movement. And when we ask a question we want an immediate answer—ah, instant gratification. Maybe we can thank smart phones for this inability to pause. Regardless, silence and pause are rare.
Now, let’s think about people who have autism spectrum disorders. Many of these individuals have auditory defensiveness and are overly sensitive to sound. They don’t just tune into the sounds that you and I tune into, but also that clock that ticks in the living room, that light that buzzes in the classroom and that kid that taps his foot on the bus.
While they are processing all of the sounds in the environment, I add another layer: I ask, “What did you ?do today?” And usually people don’t only ask one question, we fire question after question. “What did you do today? Did you have fun? Who did you play with?” Then there is a pause, this is when people feel uncomfortable. So they will repeat the question, provide options, or maybe drop the conversation and walk away. They either add more auditory information or give up. I am asking you to not do any of those things.
Insert silence. This is when silence is invaluable. My golden rule is ask a question, and wait until you feel uncomfortable, and then count to ten, and then wait some more. While maintaining eye contact, allow silence to enter the conversation. This will take practice—silence is hard. However, it is well worth the wait.
It continues to amaze me what kids with autism will produce when they are given the time to: a) sort out important versus non-important sounds from the environment; b) fully process the question and what they are expected to do; c) access the language needed to answer; d) make the motor plan to say/sign/access their device; and e) lastly, produce their message. That is what goes into answering every single question.
I challenge you to work on building more silence into your routine. Model language during a game, and place no communication demands on the child for the duration of the activity. Let them process the language—you will likely hear it pop up later in the day, maybe even later in the week.
Ask a question, and then wait and wait…and wait. Turn the radio off in the car, and find comfort in sitting in silence (and recognize that the child is processing many sounds during that car ride). Building silence and pause into every activity will continue to support and encourage language use.
Jillian Sherrodd Wing MS SLP-CCC is a speech-language pathologist who works at Legacy Salmon Creek Pediatric Rehab Center and at Thrive Psychological Services. She specializes in the treatment and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders.