Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play. Learn. Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world when neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.
Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.
Alright friends, today we’re talking about why multimodal communication is essential for autistic children. As I often do, I want to reinforce that the things that I’m sharing today don’t only apply to autistic children. Many of these ideas will relate to how we support anyone to communicate, whether it’s you, yourself, adults in your life, and other children who you support who are not autistic. The reason that I’m focusing on autistic children is because of this word essential. I believe that everybody benefits from multimodal communication.
But I think it’s non-negotiable to be supporting, modelling, using, teaching multimodal communication to autistic kids. And I will share why in this episode.
First of all, what is multimodal communication? Multimodal is talking about different modes of communication. Communicating in ways that encompass many different channels. That might be speech, and high tech AAC device where you can press a button or type out your message and it speaks for you, and visuals, gestures, facial expressions, objects. When you combine all of these things, or even just some of these modes of communication, you’re using multimodal communication, which is fabulous.
There’s two key ideas that I want to highlight before we dive into our five reasons why multimodal communication is essential for autistic children.
Firstly, I want to reiterate something that I say all the time, which is all communication is valid. If this idea is new to you, you might need to do a little bit of sitting, thinking, listening, reading, and examining the biases and prejudice that you bring, when you consider what types of communication are perhaps “best”.
The most inclusive way of considering communication, that I can think of, is that the best way of communicating is whatever is most accessible for that individual in that given moment.
Speech, mouth words, this is not the best way of communicating. It is not a higher way of communicating. It is not the ultimate goal. For many people it’s completely inappropriate as a goal, whether that’s long term or short term.
Many autistic people have difficulty with speech, for a number of reasons that I outline in one of my other podcast episodes. You might want to go back to my episode number seven, which is called All Communication is Valid. Why it might be hard for an autistic child to speak. That forms a really solid precursor to today’s episode.
The other thing I want to point out before we proceed with our reasons why multimodal communication is so non-negotiable for autistic children is that we’re talking about communication going two ways. That is receptive and expressive communication. Receptive being what you understand from the world around you. What the world and other people around you is communicating with you. And expressive meaning what you can communicate and share with the world. So keep in mind that when we’re talking about multimodal communication, what we’re modelling, what we’re teaching and supporting.
We need to be considering the communication going both ways, receptively and expressively.
So, let’s dive into our five reasons why multimodal communication is essential for autistic children.
Number one, we all use multimodal communication. When I’m teaching a webinar or a workshop, for example, I’m using multimodal communication. I use objects, pictures, written communication, gestures, body language, and yes, I do also use speech or mouth words.
When you go to the local cafe and order your favourite coffee, you probably use multimodal communication. You might use speech or mouth words to say your order. The barista might point at the credit card machine, where you need to process your payment.
You might gesture or point at the delicious case of cakes to show which one you’d like. Or even perhaps show with a gesture using your hands, indicating the size of the coffee that you’d like.
So you’re using the real life objects, you might even be pointing at a menu or pictures up on the wall. Perhaps that’s receptively, so there might be pictures of some menu items to communicate to you what you can order.
The world around us is naturally full of multimodal communication opportunities. And as I outlined at the very beginning, for most people, it’s a nice to have, and it can be a great addition to our communication repertoire to be able to perceive and share communication in different modes. But for autistic children and autistic people and people with communication differences, having other ways of sharing messages that are not just speech, mouth words, hearing can be the ultimate difference between including them in communication and excluding them from the communication.
So this brings me to point number two. It is a human right to be able to access communication in different modes. It is quite literally written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
My interpretation of that it is a human right for everyone to be able to access communication in whatever mode fits their ability and their needs.
So if you happen to disagree with this idea, you may want to take it up with the United Nations. I won’t be. I’m quite pleased that this right to communication access is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The third reason why multimodal communication is essential for autistic children Is that speech or mouth words can be hard for many reasons and I go into those in a lot more depth in episode 7 of my podcast.
Put simply, using speech is a very complex act. Physically coordinating speech can be tricky. The act of motor planning, and even cognitive planning, language planning, to figure out what you’re going to say can be quite tricky.
If you, as a therapist, parent, grown up, teacher, supporting autistic children, are enforcing, or reinforcing, that speech is the ultimate goal, you are contributing to the ableist bias that is pushing a child to use speech, rather than other forms of communication. This act of ableism assumes that everybody should proceed in their lives in a certain manner and that any other way of acting is less than acceptable.
So if you’re thinking about an autistic child that you support, you may already know some of the reasons why speech might be hard for them, sometimes or always. Or you may not. And in fact, it’s not up to a child to justify why they shouldn’t use speech. It’s up to everybody in their world to honour all forms of communication, whatever is the best form for that child in that moment.
Which brings me to point number four, what is most important about communication is that it can lead to connection. Communication is all about connecting with other people. Sharing messages, sharing space, sharing support, caring, showing somebody that you see them as a human, and you recognise them and their needs and their wants. Even if that communication is not 100% clearly shared, simply focusing on connection first, that’s what’s most important about communication.
If you’re seeking speech, speech, speech as the way of communicating, even if that’s not appropriate an autistic child in that moment, you’re very likely going to be missing out on a lot of opportunity for connection and for using their strengths and what they can do, to share that relationship and that space together.
And our fifth reason why multimodal communication is essential for autistic children is that many autistic children, have processing challenges and sensory challenges which can lead to varying communication abilities, across their lifetime or, you know, even across a particular day or activity.
Speech can be very fleeting. Something is spoken and then it’s gone. Whether you’re the speaker or the listener, it can be really hard to keep track of what you’ve said or what has been said to you, let alone to process it. Adding a visual layer to communication can be one of the biggest supports to help somebody understand you better and also to help somebody communicate their own messages effectively.
Just because somebody can communicate well using speech in one setting or in one moment it doesn’t mean we can assume that they can communicate well using that same communication mode at a different time . The impact of sensory influences, dysregulation, emotional regulation, social capacity, so so many other influences can impact on an individual’s ability to use whatever their best communication skills are in any given moment.
And so when you’re offering and modelling and sharing multimodal communication, you’re enabling an autistic child to communicate in whatever way is best for them right then and there.
If I haven’t convinced you by now that multimodal communication is the way forward, you might want to head over to that other podcast episode of mine that I shared. I’ll pop the link in the show notes.
If you’re a speech therapist, I hope you’ll join me for my free three day challenge Evolve Your Affirming Practice You can find out all the info and register at playlearnchat.com/challenge
And if you’re a speech therapist and you’re keen to get more support understanding why, but also deeply understanding how to be a neurodiversity affirming speech therapist when you’re supporting autistic children, please do join me in the Affirming Communication for Autistic Children course.
Doors are open up until the end of November, 2023. If you’re listening when this episode comes out, it’s going to be open for the next few days. If you’re listening to this later, please still head on over to playlearnchat.com/acac-course
. That stands for Affirming Communication for Autistic Children.
And you can add yourself to the wait list there if we are between course rounds.
That way I can let you know when it’s open next time, or even if the doors are open and you’re not quite ready, totally fine, add yourself to the waitlist and I can keep in touch with you.
If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat
, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes.
Wishing you a shiny day !