Autistic people often have difficulty communicating. They may be late learning to speak, or their speech may seem awkward in some way. It could be echolalic – meaning they repeat everything they hear – or they might sound a little like a robot.
My son, affectionately referred to as the Bug, has struggled with a lot of these characteristics over the years. His autism has been a communication barrier over the years. It's taken most of his almost fifteen years to get to where he can have any kind of meaningful conversation with us. Well, meaningful if you think about talking to a child of three or four. This is about where he is developmentally.
Learning Through Music
The interesting thing about the Bug is that he has almost perfect pitch, and can imitate just about any sound he hears. He learns really well if we can teach him through videos that have singing, or just by watching karaoke versions of songs he likes. I sometimes use the lyrics on the screen to introduce new vocabulary – and getting to listen to him sing with his angelic voice is a major perk for me!
Today I heard the Bug singing to himself and I realized that I recognized the tune. It was "The Lazy Song" by Bruno Mars, a toe-tapping ditty that apparently appeals to my boy because of its simplicity and repetition. The contemporary reggae beat is something both Mama and her boy can enjoy – in fact neither of us can listen to the song without swaying and nodding our heads!
"Leave A Message"
When I played the song back for my son I noticed he was getting mixed up on some of the lines. One that he was really mispronouncing was, “Leave a message at the tone.” Instead of “tone” he was saying something that sounded something like “sone.”
I realized since he doesn't make phone calls on his own, he's never encountered that phrase in real life. No wonder he didn't know what a tone was!
The Lazy Song
Pop Song Turned Teaching Tool
Proloquo - Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
So we pulled out his iPad and launched Proloquo2Go. I created a folder for Bruno Mars songs, and put in a button so he can ask to hear “The Lazy Song” whenever he wants to. But I wasn't finished, because now I was going to turn a music video into a teaching tool.
I added another button that gave the full phrase, illustrated by a hand holding a phone. A third button just said “tone” and was illustrated by a volume icon labelled with the word “beep.”
Once everything was set up, I had the Bug practice clicking the newly added buttons. The augmentative communication software uses synthesized speech to say out loud the words and phrases we program onto the buttons, so the Bug can practise using them in his own speech. It's like having a model that he can play over and over until he's satisfied, and the little boy whose voice they used, never gets tired!
Practice Makes Perfect
Instead of having the Bug repeat the speech for each button, this time I just got him to say “tone” and we listened to some outgoing messages that included the beep of the computer-generated tone. We said “tone” a few times, and then we made our own beeps.
When it came time to repeat the entire phrase, I had the Bug sing it just like Bruno Mars does it. When he got it right after a few tries, I rewarded him by playing the whole video all over again. This time he said “sone” again, but he quickly changed it to “tone” when prompted. Progress!
We still have a ways to go with this lesson. I'll likely repeat it throughout the week, and the Bug will only have learned this one concept at the end of our work. But it's an important concept, and it lays the foundation for a living skill I hope he'll one day be able to put into practice.
Inspiration and Teachable Moments
Leaving a phone message is something we take for granted, but for a person on the autism spectrum – even someone much higher functioning – it can be a daunting task that takes years to master. We make our lessons wherever we find the inspiration, wherever life gives us that “teachable moment.”
I'm not the type to try and find deep messages in songs that were obviously intended to be light-hearted entertainment, but I want to end off here by saying there was a bit of inspiration in the lyrics of “The Lazy Song.” The bridge contains the message that, “I said it 'cause I can.” This is something we tend to take for granted – especially those of us who write daily and who use language as a basic work tool.
For my Bug and many autistic people like him, being able to say something that may have been stuck inside for quite some time is a pretty big deal. Gaining communication skills makes the difference between meltdowns and pleasant moments shared, between a child being unreachable and teachable. Anything that makes it possible for a person with autism to get past the language barrier is worth celebrating.
So in our house, “not doing anything” is something that might actually be encouraged. As long as listening to that catchy tune is moving us one step further in our journey, it's all good!