Language acquisition and establishing a means of communication are key pieces of most ABA therapy. Many people enroll their children in ABA therapy specifically because they are nonverbal or minimally verbal and they have an immense desire to be able to communicate with their children.
Verbal speech is not the only way to communicate with children, but it can be an important way for many families.
It’s true that being unable to communicate with peers, family members, teachers, and medical professionals can set a child back. How can we expect children to socialize if there are significant barriers preventing them from communicating with others? Simply put, we can’t. And despite that verbal speech is not the only manner of communication, many people communicate almost exclusively via verbal speech, making the world inaccessible to those who don’t use it.
Of course it is beneficial for us to advocate for a more accessible world… But sometimes, verbal speech is important. So how do we foster the development of verbal speech in the best and least harmful ways?
ABA’s role in language acquisition
ABA therapists have no formal training in language or speech.
ABA typically aims to foster “correct” speech and an increase in “mean length of utterance” while attempting to reduce echolalia, which is repetitious speech.
Unfortunately this undermines the use of echolalic speech as a tool for the acquisition of language.
Besides the confusing goals and measurements for language acquisition in ABA, there’s a bigger issue at play.
Teaching children how to speak by forcing them to sit still, make eye contact, and focus their attention fully on an adult showing them flashcards is not ideal. Teaching children language that is relevant to them while they behave normally is a far superior method.
What’s more? ABA therapists may punish a child for being unable to utilize verbal speech “correctly”- that is, if a child cannot say the right word at the right time, they may be spanked, verbally scolded, or worse.
Speech Therapy for language acquisition
Unlike behavior analysts, Speech therapists (or speech language pathologists) go to college and get master’s degrees wherein they learn to teach and encourage speech in effective ways.
Speech therapists will work with children and their existing forms of communications as they attempt to foster verbal speech.
Speech therapy can help children with many speech-related issues, and even some that don’t seem speech related at all:
- Difficulty articulating words
- Incorrect volume (too quiet, too loud)
- Incorrect pitch or inflections
- Others problems with the mouth (including feeding)
- Difficulty understanding language that one hears
- Difficulty expression oneself
- Socially inappropriate uses of language
Speech therapists use many different formats to work on these issues, including modeling or play-based therapies, articulation therapy, and even feeding therapy among other methods.
Alternative forms of communication (to accompany speech therapy, or stand alone)
Parents are often desperate to improve their child’s ability to communicate in their language- speech- all the while forgetting that nonverbal communication exists.
Autistic people who are nonverbal or minimally verbal do communicate, just not with sentences and phrases. Behavior is communication, and there exists an abundance of other resources to foster both verbal and nonverbal communication in children.
Children can learn sign language or use an Augmentated and Alternative Communication (AAC) device to communicate more effectively with others and using a better nonverbal method to communicate may even foster the development of speech and language.