What is nonverbal communication? In part, it is body language. Think about meeting someone for the first time, first impressions matter, which is why we wear our best outfit, give a firm handshake, walk with our heads up and shoulders back.
Think about the last job interview you went to. You sat facing the interviewer with good posture, used your hands to emphasize certain points, kept your foot from tapping so you did not appear nervous, nodded to show you understood what they said, and more. Nonverbal communication is part of our conscious and subconscious actions.
What about all the times you read someone’s body language during day-to-day activities? Whether it is helping someone who cannot reach an item, helping someone who looks lost, or crossing the street to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations.
How Does This Apply To ABA?
We know that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed based on a triad of skill deficiencies in the areas of communication, social interaction, and repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviours. In order to help our clients to build their communication repertoire, we need to start with nonverbal communication as it is one of the core building blocks for speech development and language.
Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool and includes areas such as eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, body postures, and sounds. This makes it a powerful tool for our clients who do not speak, as it provides them a way to express themselves, as well as get their needs met. If a child does not learn to communicate (verbally or otherwise), decision making becomes the responsibility of someone else – why would a child need to start communicating if every need is met.
Here we break down 5 steps for teaching and increasing nonverbal communication:
Step 1: Do Less
The more we do to provide a learner with all they need, the less they need to initiate communication. Instead of providing free access, offer choices. Instead of giving them the entire snack at once, give smaller portions at a time.
During snack time instead of giving the child the entire snack, break it up into smaller pieces so they need to communicate when they want more.
Step 2: Wait
One way to practice doing less for the child is to wait for a cue. These cues can take the form of fleeting look, reaching towards you or the desired item, a vocalization (that is not a scream or a cry), etc. Remember to wait for the child to do something to communicate what they want.
Hold the desired item in front of you and offer it part-way to the child. We do not want to give the child the item yet. By offering an item part-way, the child must reach towards you. Once the child has communicated with reach, you give them the item.
Be Careful if:
If the child begins to cry and scream before you can wait for an appropriate communicative response, waiting them out will only lead to more crying. This is where it is important to know your learner.
Start to offer the child the choice BEFORE they have the idea that they want something. Instead of waiting for the tantrum-behaviour, offer them the item or activity before they realize they want it.
Step 3: Create Opportunities
Practice. Practice. Practice.
It is important to remember that we are not ignoring the child’s wants or needs by withholding items. What we are doing is holding on to items and activities a little bit longer to create an opportunity for practice.
Before you pick up the child for swings, tickles, or hugs, offer your arms but wait to pick them up until they look (fleeting glance), reach, raise their arms, vocalize, etc. Instead of engaging in the action repeatedly, do it once and stop – see if the child will come back for more.
If you know the child wants one item, provide them with the choice of two items (the desired item, and another item you know the child does not want). Hold these two options in front of the learner and wait for them to indicate a choice.
Create situations where the child needs your help. If a child has free access to everything they want, they no longer need to communicate.
What happens if a child does not make attempt to communicate? Help them.
You can model, gesture, or physically prompt them to make a clear request with their body.
Step 4: Don’t Give Up
These will be new routines and expectations for the learner, and they may not understand what you want or be willing to engage in this new way of doing things. Knowing this, we must persist. By making the activities fun and by starting with skills already in the learner’s repertoire, we make the learning opportunities valuable for the child.
Be sure that each new routine ends with something the child wants, so that their efforts are rewarded at the end of each trial.
Start with communications that you know the child can do easily.
Help the child do what you want them to do – they may not know to reach at first as things may have always been handed to them.
Step 5: Position
When people communicate, they face each other. We want the child to learn that they are communicating with you, and not to an empty space.
Face the child and put desired items between you and the child as opposed to sitting side by side facing the same direction.
Put yourself in front of the child, not beside or behind.
Things To Keep In Mind:
Routine and predictability will help the child find patterns in behaviour and learn which communications are reinforced.
Exaggerate your gestures. Some of these learning opportunities may be new to the learner, and they may not understand what is expected of them. Provide exaggerated models and gestures at first (then fade to more natural responding). Do the action or give the object, while narrating with simple phrases.
How do you know which gestures to teach?
Ones that you can easily prompt, shape, or elicit. Remember, the ones already in the learner’s repertoire are easiest to start with.
We also need to keep in mind what the goal of these gestures are. If there is something the child needs help with, we want them to give us the item – not reach to be picked up or point to an item on a high shelf.
Communication is powerful, no matter how small.
Read our other posts for more communication information:
Daily Activities to Promote Language for early and intermediate talkers
Verbal Requesting for teaching how to request from echoic prompts, echoic-to-mand, and expanding verbal requests