Safe Travels, Christopher Robin

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Hope is all that’s left when you’ve tried your best and nature takes its course.

It was early morning, mid-May, on an unseasonably gray day. Sheets of rain were clattering on my car as I drove to my client’s house. The drive to M’s house was always a thoughtful one, and I was anxious about what I was going to say when I got there.

 I enjoyed the in-home therapeutic sessions I did with autistic kids, without exception. I thrived in an environment that was at times improvisatory and at times highly structured, and I spent my nights and weekends devising appropriate and meaningful interventions to help them reach their goals. We always made progress together. The families I worked with looked to me in different ways — as a counselor, a teacher, a confidant, a sitter — and, following all scientific evidence, all available resources, and my body of clinical experience, I attempted to impart lessons about building relationships, enhancing quality of life, and maintaining a growth mindset. 

It wasn’t just about identifying patterns, sequencing stories, or saying please. It was always about teaching exceedingly complex and particular ideas that could open new pathways of communication and understanding for them and their family.

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M’s case was a particularly difficult one, which is why I was chosen by the agency to work with him and his mom, G. My experience and multidisciplinary approach, along with my patience and compassion, would be needed. G’s primary concern was that her teenaged, autistic son was missing a lot of school, “throwing tantrums” (her words) right before he had to get on the bus. I’d been working with M for a few months on creating a consistent routine, using musical cues to prompt and reinforce him through donning his shoes and jacket, and eliciting conversation about things that might happen during the day. Our efforts were variably successful — we might build a streak of eight school days, but the “tantrums” would return. 

In cases like these, it was important to look at the antecedent and reinforcing behaviors — what was leading up to and what was following — M’s seemingly sudden, strong refusal to go, which, when paired with both G and M becoming agitated, then led to a meltdown. 

There are myriad factors that influence every decision, action and reaction for an autistic person. These are in addition to the physiological reactions they may experience at greater or lesser magnitudes than their neurotypical counterparts, and in addition to the potential difficulties identifying or communicating their needs, preferences, and anxieties. If, like M, they struggle to verbally identify their needs, environmental controls are put in place to narrow down what may be leading to the issue at hand, in conjunction with attempting new pathways of communication and creating or enhancing a sense of self (self-awareness.) 

To my most objective observations, there was one clear and unfortunate obstacle to M building a consistent routine and finding regular comfort and success with the primary objective.

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G was that obstacle, the only reason the case was so difficult for me, and the cause of my concern as I drove to session that day. A parent’s impact on their child is always complicated and difficult to view objectively, but I’d already seen and heard too many markers for concern. 

For all of the time I spent explaining to G that her son was capable of learning, that he had shown signs of improvement, and that progress would at the very least require her to maintain emotional stability during the transitional time, G showed very little desire to learn or adapt. She would listen raptly through my explanations, then immediately launch into an unrelated story about how difficult M could be, how he’d made a mistake earlier in the week, or how she’d had to miss work again. M and I could be having a peaceful conversation at the breakfast table, when G would enter the room, complain loudly that M “better not pull something today”, and then lay out a complicated series of punishments and prizes he could expect depending on how he acted. 

It was baffling and deplorable. I struggled to steady myself as I neared the house. Five miles to go. Deep breaths. More presence of mind. It would be a difficult conversation. As a therapist, it was my job to maintain objectivity, a professional demeanor, and an emotional distance, all while advocating for M. Focus on the particulars, not the ideals. Move one tree at a time, don’t attempt to demolish the entire forest in a sweeping overaction. Four miles to go.

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 In some ways, G was treating her teenaged son like a forever-baby and worse. She believed he would never learn, never cease “throwing tantrums”, and never be anything less than her burden to bear. She jumped in to speak for him when he hesitated, so he often remained silent when she was around. She spoke about him in the third person while he was in the room. She refused to teach or let him learn about his changing, teenaged body, and she allowed him to cuddle beside her in her bed on a regular basis. 

In other ways, G seemed to think M should act like an adult. 

“He’s doing this to challenge me,” she’d say at the top of her voice, while he jumped under her covers in her bedroom to escape the bus. 

“I know you know what you’re doing to me,” she’d cajole, as he lay face-down on the carpet in the foyer. 

“Lori (me) is very mad at you,” she’d growl, while I stared at her incredulously, shaking my head vigorously and making x’s with my arms. 

“If you don’t go to school today, I won’t let you have your iPad on Saturday, which you earned yesterday for doing such a good job, and then Lisa (sitter) will be very upset with you and she won’t take you to play basketball like I promised yesterday,” she’d threaten and bribe simultaneously. 

Then, when he inevitably missed the bus, G would wring her hands and wax happily nostalgic for a time when he was smaller, easier to carry around, easier to control, and not so challenging. G knew M was listening, hiding at the top of the stairs or in the next room, but could not see that her own attitude might be creating the problem at hand, or at the very least complicating it. 

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On this bleak and brisk day, I was going to insist that G remove herself entirely from the situation for the foreseeable future. M was capable of waking up, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and eating breakfast independently. I’d be there to help with his shoes, jacket, and getting on the bus. I rehearsed the words in my head over and over again on the drive that day. 

“At this point, and given everything we’ve seen, the treatment team has decided collectively on a path moving forward.” I planned to pause here, and take a breath. Then, “To understand M’s needs and challenges while transitioning to the bus, we need you to remove yourself from the environment. You can stay in your room with the door closed, or take a walk in the neighborhood, or sit in the backyard obliviously. But under no circumstance can you continue to be present in the kitchen, foyer, or living room while M and I are in session. Mothers have a very powerful effect on their children, and it would be good to know how your presence may be influencing him.” I expected she would be distraught about this and argue, but thought I might be able to get her to commit to being absent on a trial basis to gather data.  

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I knew M wouldn’t automatically cease having trouble boarding the bus, but I absolutely needed to control for the most caustic and unpredictable variable in the room. I was confident that if she would allow for this change, I could begin to understand the situation. 

I was shaken from my rationalizing suddenly. The black SUV several car lengths ahead on this busy, suburban street hydroplaned and skidded to a stop. Into the SUV’s driver’s side door, an American Robin (AMRO) dove with spectacular force, turning to his side at the last minute. Even with my radio on and the sound of the pelting rain on my car’s roof, I heard the collision. 

Flying in the rain is particularly dangerous for birds for two reasons. Smaller birds risk trapping water among the air pockets of their feathers and contracting hypothermia. Larger birds struggle to get enough aerodynamic lift in the dense air of low-pressure systems. I suspect that this robin was suffering the latter on this rainy, spring day.

Photo by Kiarash Mansouri on Unsplash

My heart was breaking. I slowly drove past the robin as he lay in the center of the road. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but I knew that he could easily be crushed by someone swerving to avoid the poorly draining shoulders. One short block past, panicked, I pulled a tight U-turn. I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go back. He didn’t deserve to die in the street like that. I threw my hazards on and jumped out into the road.

Drenching in the downpour, I scooped up the robin in canvas I normally used for school supplies. The AMRO was alive, stunned but present. I wrapped him carefully, held him gingerly, and drove with one hand to the nearest side street. I snapped a quick pic and texted a friend who owned a few canaries (They did not respond in time to assist.) I’m not a veterinarian or bird expert by any means, but the Amro seemed to be alright. His feet and wings all seemed in tact and at the proper angles. Though he was stock still, his eye blinked occasionally and seemed to follow my face. With no time to take him to a hospital, I made the difficult decision to place him between a bush and a giant oak tree, nestled between the visible roots. I jumped back in my car, shaken, and dried off as I drove the last mile or so to M’s house.

Photo by Lori Siesto, Author

I wish I could say that I successfully communicated the plan to G, but M was already beginning to make refusals when I arrived. I gathered myself, apologized for my lateness quickly, and succeeded in helping M calm from a screaming wail to a slow sob as the bus pulled away. He had chosen independently to go to his own room, rather than his mother’s bed, and I was optimistic that the sessions might be having a positive effect. 

When I returned to the kitchen, G had some news. Due to M’s many absences, she’d been informed that he would have to repeat his current grade level. The school had recommended he continue attending for the remaining month or so, for stability. To minimize her stress, she whispered, she’d decided just today, just now, to remove him from school entirely and start fresh in the fall. She couldn’t do it anymore. She’d already been in the process of buying a new condo in another state. A new school, a new state, and new friends would do M good. Wouldn’t that be nice, to start over? She was musing, I was fuming.

For a teenager that had difficulty transitioning from his home to the bus, I wondered what made her confident that he would transition easily from his home to another, newer, far away home, a new school, and entirely new people. I managed to gently mention something to that effect, despite the bile that was rising within me. She pretended not to hear me and said she was looking forward to selling their current home. Then, she terminated our sessions. 

Photo by NON on Unsplash

Typically, I insisted on several sessions prior to termination, in order to help ease the transition. It could be very harmful to simply pull a kid from his therapist, then his school, his friends, and his home. He should be offered the opportunity to prepare himself for the change and to say goodbye properly. G announced it would be unnecessary. He would not be taking the bus any longer, so my services were no longer required. I did my best to say goodbye to M, who did not understand that it was the last time he’d ever see me. G lifted his wrist and shook it back and forth to approximate him waving, something he had done many times on his own. 

The hottest, most enraging tears mingled with the bone chilling rain as I returned to my car, defeated. 

After taking notes and informing the team of what I’d learned, I drove back to where I’d placed the AMRO. I’d only been at M’s house for 20 minutes. Perhaps I could bring the AMRO to the wildlife vet or check to ensure he was still breathing.

Photo by Joel Swick on Unsplash

I approached the oak tree slowly, careful not to shock him. I crouched down over the root system to find… nothing. There was no trace of him. If he’d been eaten, there would have been feather fragments or tracks. In my heart, I knew he had survived. Perhaps he’d hopped into the bushes nearby or even found a crevice in the enormous oak in which to wait out the rain. 

I’ll never know if G went through with her grand reinvention, or if M ever found ways to cope with the changes, or with his self-centered, deluded mother. I am hopeful that as he grows up some of what we did together will stay with him and help him along his path. 

We may help save a life with our smallest acts of compassion, but we may never know the full effects of what our actions have wrought.

400 Words on Verbosity

The first of “Our Autistic Expression”, a series intended to inform interested parties about our observations and experiences. Rather than a sweepingly broad brush of neurodivergent averages (an oxymoronic idea), we wish to present very particular, brief, unique-to-us-yet-hopefully-relatable vignettes. We write to the curious, the empathetic, and the open-minded, regardless of where and if on the spectrum they identify.

Climb the aged ladder to the attic of our minds. Pull the chains attached to the singular, incandescent bulbs. Squint for a dim, noncomprehensive view of whatever thoughts are nearest the doorways.  

Sunshine & the Scientist
Photo by Naveen Annam on Pexels.com

400 Words on Verbosity

Sunshine’s View

I have always been labeled as highly verbal, aka talkative, chatty, too chatty, the arbiter of big words, the little professor from the earliest age, the know-it-all, the curious questioner. Even before I could talk, I mimicked basic sign language learned from children’s television to communicate with my parents. Then, I absorbed language with an unquenchable thirst, reading at a higher grade level than my peers by a factor of two. In my school years, teachers remarked simultaneously how proud they were of my talkative nature and my incredible vocabulary, and how disappointed they were of my inability to sit quietly or be challenged by the assignments and activities they presented.

For most people, a few minutes’ conversation is usually enough for even the least discerning individuals to notice that I’m…something. My partner has much the same effect. He often gets called a genius, brilliant, wonderous, which are all likely accurate. I, in comparison, am mistakenly labeled as conniving, manipulative, or domineering –all code for smart lady in a patriarchal society. In my view, the assumptions about my partner and I are not based on the content of our conversations, but rather our specificity of words, our lengthy speech patterning, and our penchant for being able to cite facts and figures, dates and names, with relative ease and accuracy. We also, unlike many we meet, will typically identify when we know we don’t know.

Because of the speed at which I process language, and the adoring deliberateness with which I communicate, I am full of puns, jokes, call-backs, accents, regional dialects, song lyrics, doubly- and triply-layered innuendo, and metacognitive observations. I may move too fast to be followed, making fewer connections aloud than I realize. My jokes fall flat for the uninitiated. My references seem scattered and my intentions mysterious. For other neurodivergent folk, I am a gem, if a bit overwhelming. For the non-divergent, I am a pariah, a handful, a witch, or an existential threat.

I am fortunate to have found my partner, who can follow and extend the conversation with unmatched precision. We can chat for hours and our attics are endlessly vaulted, a bit dusty, infrequently accessed, and jam-packed with interesting anecdotes and artifacts. We both developed with an intense passion for learning and for communicating, and it bonds us in the ways it sets us apart from others.

To the little professors, past and present, I see you.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent. My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly.

We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely, 

Sunshine

of www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates and educational and therapeutic resources, downloadable on TpT

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer (and, with support, future picture books)

Photo by Khoa Vu00f5 on Pexels.com

If you have questions regarding this entry or any part of Our Autistic Expression, we encourage you to reach out.

We prioritize community, growth mindset, and neurodivergent inclusion, and we truly enjoy the conversations that arise from our openness.

Please, Stop Asking Kids this One Question

By asking, you may be inadvertently creating a situation for your child that the question is intended to avoid. 

[This entry is informed by formal education and clinical experience. An earlier version of this entry appeared on the Kid Lit Motivates Resource Blog.]

[TLDR: For the Quick Summary, please scroll to the Summary heading.] 

Read on for the explanation. 

Every parent I’ve ever met wants the best for their kid and parenting is a nonstop job. Parents work long hours, have big hearts, and push their kids to have the very best quality of life they can imagine. While working in-home with autistic kids, I always integrated family members into our sessions — they’d provide support long after I’d gone home for the night. I used my experience and training to give families the building blocks to strengthen their family ties and grow together. 

The adage is true; It takes a village


So now, it is with the best of intentions and my sincerest appreciation for our shared responsibilities that I bring something to your attention: 

There is one question we need to stop asking.

I hear The Question so frequently that I honestly wonder about its ubiquity. How did we, as a culture, land on this one question as a means to an end? 

It’s a simple and well-intentioned question that steps on its own toes, so to speak. It gets in its own way. Bites its own tongue. Circular reasons itself out of meaningfulness. Causes exactly what it’s attempting to prevent. 

In real time, I’m powerless to stop it from being asked. The Question, this one small, well-meant colloquial adult-asks-kid scenario is so annoyingly antithetical to its purpose that I’m dedicating an entire entry to it (one that has been cut down from near-6k words.) It has the opposite effect for which it is meant. It reinforces the behavior intended to be changed. 

 How is the question raised?

Setting the Scene — Scenario

Jo and I are sitting at their dining room table. Jo is 10 years old, loves to play soccer, use metallic ink pens, and is intensely passionate about narrow interests. They have been diagnosed with co-morbid learning and communication delays. I visit their house several times a week, for a few hours at a time as a “tutor” and I “teach” social skills.

To this end, I use mirroring and modeling techniques, based on the iso-principle, to artificially match their energy and affect for pairing in the relationship. (Over time, I’ll use the technique less.) For now, it helps create a friendly foundation on which to build a learning environment. It also lets me briefly assess and evaluate the appropriate direction for today’s session in particular. There are many potential activities for us, but it’s Jo’s engagement that guides the choice. The session COULD be wacky and wildly energetic, replete with games, songs, and stories. Or, like today, it could be a quiet and reserved approach. 

Opening Lines — The Lead Up

Jo is not making eye contact, their hands are down, and their shoulders are drooping. After knowing Jo a few months, I’ve come to expect the ebb and flow (aka dysregulation) of Jo’s emotions and I’ve consistently encouraged them to do what feels comfortable in any given moment.

Jo has unique social and communication needs. They‘re learning how to speak with people (not at them), how to empathize with others, and how to create friendships from incidental connections. They will practice with me, in routine and naturalistic ways, small skills that add up to big strides with me and then slowly generalized to others. My responsibility is to present the complexity of skills into easily manageable, repeatable, and quantifiable behaviors, then guide them to chain the skills together in useful, less mechanistic ways. I don’t expect Jo to learn all of these skills at once. For today, it’s okay if they can’t make eye contact. It’s okay if we sit quietly together for a few minutes without speaking, if they cannot return my greeting, or if they cannot respond to any question I ask. These are the most important skills I’m hoping to model, and we have all of our time together to practice them.

Even if Jo and I have achieved a richly engaging conversation in the past, I don’t anticipate or push for one. Jo is growing their understanding of back-and-forth social exchanges. In the meantime, I know through experience that there’s no sense in forcing them to interact. Over time, I’ll use reinforcement, repetition, role play, singing, game play, and other techniques, to teach this complex task which comes naturally to some, but not so to others.  

Enter Mom and the Question of the Ages

Le had greeted me at the door and shown me into the room where Jo waits. She stands in the doorway as Jo and I take our places at the table, hovering expectantly as many moms do. After a beat, she begins shifting her weight uncomfortably as she recognizes what I’ve mentioned: Jo’s disengagement. 

Le’s main goal for having me here is to enhance Jo’s communication abilities and the quality of their social interactions. She wants them to make friends more easily. She is very eager to see them communicate with others the way they only seem to communicate with her. Jo CAN talk, after all, but they sometimes struggle to speak genuinely with anyone other than Le. She’s concerned about their daily interactions, especially with adolescence on the horizon. I’ve done my best to educate Le to moderate her expectations. Her relationship with them will always be unique. They are actually very typical for a neurodivergent kid. These skills can take time, and it’s time we must all be ready for.

Let’s Begin — Jo and Me (and apparently, Le)

While I stack my notebooks and pull out my metallic pens, I can sense Le’s discomfort and anticipation. Jo may sense it too. It’s not helping Jo in the slightest. 

I model for Le while also seeking Jo’s engagement. I prompt Jo, softly, patiently. 

How was your day, Jo? 

Good, Jo continues looking at their lap. 

What would you like to talk about?

No response. 

I did something fun today. 

No response. 

Can I tell you about my fun day? 

They shrug. 

 In my head, I’m figuring out the path for this session. I’m using questions to provide opportunities. I’m evaluating the day’s objectives, informed by the overall communication goal and the presenting affect. Given their reserved responses, I’m planning to move to a medium with less conversation, like a worksheet, a music intervention, or a game. It will take the spotlight pressure off.

Jo turns to see Le hovering in the corner by the door. They look up at her, avoiding my gaze completely. (They are nonverbally seeking assistance.) Seeing their head turn, in the way of most well-meaning parents, Le rushes to Jo’s aid and inadvertently asks the most nonfunctional yet somehow pervasive question.

I try and signal Le not to speak, knowing the question is coming, but without rudely cutting her off, there’s nothing I can do. I silently observe Le as she, with the best intentions, reinforces Jo’s communication strife.

The Question that Answers Itself

“Did you tell Lori about … ?” Le prompts.

It’s a common phrasing. Meaningless in this situation, yet we use it regularly. It’s an error that sets my teeth on edge. It does nothing to help the child break out of their shell or learn appropriate interactions. It doesn’t enhance the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t model natural conversation and it doesn’t encourage social exploration. But, as I’ve said, Le’s mistake is a mistake we all make from time to time with kids. Le already knows the answer, and Jo knows she knows. 

You Already Know 

Whatever follows the question doesn’t matter.

Did you tell Lori about the field trip you went on yesterday?

Did you tell Grandma what happened over the weekend?

Did you tell your friend where we went after football practice? 

Did you tell your teacher about your new shoes?

Did you tell [person][event/thing/action]?

And so on. 

Varying Responses with Only One Result

Did you tell Lori about the field trip?

 Jo, like most kids, responds by sitting quietly without responding. Jo, in a difficult moment, has successfully passed the communication reins to Le, and will now have Le lead the conversation. 

Jo looks self-conscious. The thing they didn’t mention is red ink on the page. Jo hasn’t said anything at all, their mom knows it, and yet, their mom has put them in a situation to either say “no” or not respond at all. The question does not open a line of dialog — it creates an end point. 

To incorporate the framing of the question, I turn my body toward her saying something to the effect of, “Jo will tell me when they’re ready,” and then turn back to Jo and ask a direct, potentially related, question. Whatever I ask will be open-ended enough to allow Jo the agency of responding, as Le has already removed the agency of choosing a subject. I might ask something like: 

Jo, where did you go on your field trip?

Who was on the field trip with you? 

Did you take a bus with your class, or ride in a car? 

Unfortunately for Jo, Le feels tired of Jo not responding, and wants to show them what to do. Before I can leave space and ask Jo a direct question, Le jumps in again: 

 You went to the museum, right? Tell Lori about the museum, and what your teacher said.” 

In every case that I’ve seen using the “Did you tell…” framing followed by an additional piece of information, every kid, just like Jo, repeats back whatever was said and falls silent again. Jo: 

We went to a museum.

This isn’t a natural conversation, and Jo doesn’t even have a starring role in it. I can ask whatever I want now, Jo will likely only shrug or look back to Le. Over time, Jo and Le have adapted this likely unconscious routine, where Jo has difficulty initiating, Le fills in the blanks, and Jo parrots back a response enough to appease me, or any adult Jo is expected to talk to. 

An Easy Mistake with Lasting Consequences

In an effort to persuade Jo to begin talking, Le is fabricating a situation for them to rely on another person to start talking. 

In this instance, Le is not teaching them to speak. She is speaking for Jo in a somewhat condescending way. Perhaps Jo doesn’t want to discuss the field trip with me, or perhaps there’s something else on their mind. Maybe they were waiting on a better time to bring it up, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk at all. Le has removed Jo’s agency, likely in response to their own discomfort with our mutual silence.

It’s completely well-intentioned. It’s also detrimental. Le may be the person who saves her friends from awkward conversations at cocktail parties, but her child is also relying heavily on her to do so every day. 

If you’re not sure why “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is bad, here are 4 glaring issues I’ve seen in practice. 

1. “You KNOW I didn’t”

“Did you tell…?” No, and you know it! Le knows Jo has not told me this story, she’s been standing there the whole time! In no way does this resemble a natural, conversational style. Issue 1: Modeling Unnatural Interaction 

2. Insinuating “You should/could have mentioned…”

“Did you tell…?” In natural conversational style, the way most of us would respond to being asked this question would be to say “No I didn’t tell…” followed by actually telling or giving a reason why we haven’t told yet. 

Jo doesn’t have a natural conversational style; it’s why they’re working with me. By asking this, Le is expecting Jo to have mastered this part of dialog we take for granted, insinuating they should have mentioned the thing, and holding Jo to a test they can likely at this stage only fail. Issue 2: Setting the Bar Too High While Simultaneously Acknowledging It’s Unreached

3. “Don’t put me on the spot!” 

The self-awareness required to answer the question correctly is almost always accompanied by feelings of shyness, discomfort, or poor self-esteem. Le put Jo on the spot to discuss something they picked, and does so repeatedly on a regular basis. After this interaction with me, Jo typically lashes out in anger, at agreed upon boundaries or at themselves.

“Did you tell…?”

“Man, why didn’t I think of telling them about that?” or “I didn’t want to mention that — but now I guess we have to talk about it.”

Issue 3: Creating Feelings of Inadequacy or Poor Self-Esteem

4. “What do I do now?” 

“Did you tell…?” is a prompt that reinforces the dependent relationship, and the more it’s used, the more deeply it’s entrenched in their interactions. Jo will wait to be prompted by Le to speak, and will rely on Le for the appropriate topic in any given moment. What will Jo do when Le is not around? Perhaps, lead the conversation alone, but in my experience, if this is a routine occurrence, Jo will clam up or wait to be directed when Le is not around. And who will Jo take prompts from? Potentially, anyone. Issue 4: Conditioning Unwanted Behavior

Show, Don’t Tell

Every adult who interacts with Jo has a responsibility to model natural conversation, so that Jo is able to begin to implement what they learn in our sessions. If Le feels like she must jump in, she can say to me, “Jo went on a field trip today. Maybe they’ll tell you about that when they’re ready.”  

Jo’s responsibility is to communicate to the best of their ability, whatever that may be today. They do not need to make me feel comfortable, to act outside of their nature perform for me. They may or may not be aware that communication is even expected, which is completely and totally okay. 

It’s my responsibility to show and not tell how I start conversations, what topics are good jumping-off points, and the mechanisms by which our language is figurative, inferential, casual, and anticipatory.

Recapping the Question Not to Ask

When asking “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you are inadvertently and with the best of intentions: 

  1. Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
  2. Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
  3. Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
  4. Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings

An Addendum for Minimally Verbal Children

“Minimally Verbal”, or occasionally “Nonverbal”, is the descriptive term therapists use for those who use functional language minimally (if at all).

The Question is Still Problematic

For the minimally verbal, “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is potentially even more detrimental. For functionally verbal children like Jo, the question is problematic for all the reasons listed above. For minimally verbal children with difficulties processing or understanding language, the question reinforces the wrong idea. In this instance, following

Did you tell Lori we went to the park?

 will frequently be answered with either an incorrect answer or an echo.

Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “Yes.” No, you didn’t. Tell Lori we went to the park. 

Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “the Park.” 

The responses are not functional. The child doesn’t understand what is being asked. In most cases, parents then respond positively — 

 “The park.” “Yes! That’s right! We went to the park!”

Functionally, the child sees a happy parent and hears praise. The child will now be conditioned to respond the same way following each “Did you” question. 

Did you eat lunch? “Yes. Eat lunch.” 

Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes.” 

Did the lunch person help you with your lunchbox? “Lunchbox.” 

Did you know you forgot your lunch? “Yes.” But did they know? 

It is truly amazing to watch as minimally verbal children begin to process language with more specific intervention. For some, with exposure to more concise and deliberate language patterns, start they begin to parse through sentence structure and notice jokes, inference, etc. Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes………Noooooo….” Their faces light up with an inkling of confidence and a dawning of understanding. Not everyone will get to this point of understanding, however. 

If you believe a minimally verbal child is either repeating the last word or responding yes or no without truly understanding to a Did you question, remove the prompt from your vocabulary until the child has more of an understanding of Yes/No, Present/Past, and until “You did, You didn’t” is more readily understood.

Other Suggestions for Avoiding the “Did You” Question

  1. Give the therapist or teacher a head’s up. Prior to the session, email/call/text, out of the child’s earshot, and give the details about the child’s day. A good therapist will hear that a child was excited to buy new shoes and will guide the conversation naturally in that direction to allow the child the opportunity for success — if they want to, are able to, and feel comfortable doing so.
  2. Write it down with your child! For children with communication deficits, a small bullet journal of potential conversation topics can go a long way. Each night, have the child think back to what was notable about the day — trips, events, funny moments, fights, whatever they might want to talk about. Write a small reminder for each, or draw a small picture, and then get in the habit of having that book available during the session and beyond. The act of reflecting on a regular basis will help the child to understand what is expected when someone asks “What did you do today?” or “What do you want to talk about?” 
  3. If you feel you must prompt, then change up the question. Give a gentle verbal reminder that does not begin with “Did you tell…” There are a lot of ways to do this. Use names and speak plainly so it is clear who is talking to who and ask questions that lead in a specific, but open direction, rather than yes/no. 

Lori, yesterday Jo and I went shopping.

Jo, Lori wants to hear about your new shoes.

Lori, you have GOT to hear about this. Jo, tell Lori about our trip to the mall.

Jo, it looks like Lori is wearing new sneakers — you and Lori have that in common. What can you ask her about her sneakers? 

These prompts aren’t ideal because they still create boundaries to Jo developing their own natural conversational style, but these prompts are infinitely better than the defeating “did you” prompt.

4. Simply, let it go. That’s right. Just let it go. Let the therapist work. Let the child make progress. Let the moment proceed all on its own. Let everyone sit in what is perceived to be an uncomfortable silence. What made your child excited yesterday, may currently not have the same effect. It was a special moment for the two of you, but not necessarily something to talk about. Perhaps once the session is over, the child will point out that special thing, or wait for the therapist to notice. 

If there’s no way to prompt the therapist privately or prompt your child in an open-ended manner, ask yourself — how necessary is my intervention in this moment? Can I let this go? Typically, yes, yes you can.

Summary

  1. Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter. 
  2. It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills. 
  3. By asking the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you may be: 
  • Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
  • Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
  • Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
  • Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings

4. Instead, replace “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” try: 

  • Contact the people the child is going to be talking to ahead of time, so they know what to ask about directly.
  • Help the child keep a bulleted or pictorial reflection journal as a conversational assistant.
  • Use a gentle, different verbal reminder, and be open to the child’s answer even if it isn’t on your intended topic.
  • Let the topic go. 

No promises, but…

Jo is a special kid. They’re gifted in their own way. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes very engaging. You may not even know what they are capable of. If you let them develop without prodding, you’ll be amazed at the potential they have. Trust me when I tell you, it will be worth the wait when you hear him learn new skills, gain confidence, and begin to engage others with ease. 

I would love to hear your comments, questions, additions, or anecdotes.

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