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I’ve been wanting to write a post about questions for a while because I feel like asking your child questions and/or quizzing them is something that’s very misunderstood.  Ironically enough, I’ll begin this post by asking a question.

When you show your child a picture or item and ask “what is it”, are you teaching?  The answer is NO!  You aren’t teaching because teaching is when unknown information evolves or changes to known information.  When you asked your child “what is it” you didn’t teach; You asked them to recall something already known.

Oddly enough, this is what most people think of when they imagine teaching.  Our mental picture of teaching almost always involves someone asking a question.

Here’s something else to think about.  I bring a deck of 100 flash cards that feature common everyday items into my session and quiz a kid until he knows all of them.  He can say every word.  Let’s make this scenario even more interesting and say this kid was previously non-verbal.  The parents are likely ecstatic!  “Thank goodness he can finally communicate!” they think.  Unfortunately, this isn’t true because although he knows 100 or for that matter 1000 common everyday items; He still wouldn’t be able to form a spontaneous sentence.  I’m pretty sure words like “the, is, was, it, hey, etc” weren’t in that deck of common everyday items.  How on earth would you visually represent them.  Communication isn’t 100% nouns.

This is why I am very much against quizzing emerging communicators.  I could give a lot more examples of why doing this isn’t a great idea but I’d rather provide a possible alternative that gives you a little more teaching or practice bang for your buck.

You may want to try to teach or practice using comments.  Here’s how I would fix the first example I gave.  Instead of holding up the picture or item (we will use an apple for this example) and asking “what is it”, I might try changing my voice to indicate what I’m holding is the most awesome thing ever created while saying “Oh wow! Look! An APPLE!!!  You can eat the apple (along with pretending to eat the apple + the ohm ohm cookie monster sound). Then, I add more basic concepts to this exchange  ” This is a red apple.  Look your shirt is red!  Two red things! One! Two! (while pointing to each red thing).”

Hopefully, you see the difference.  Not only are you able to pack a lot more information into your practice sessions, but you’re demonstrating the act of initiating communication and providing opportunities for back and forth communication.

When you ask a question you provide zero opportunities for initiation and zero opportunities for back and forth communication.  Two of the biggest problem areas I regularly observe in older children with ASD are initiation and lack of 2 way back and forth communication.

I wonder if maybe the lack of initiation is possibly due to never being taught or shown how to initiate and keep a conversation going.  What if the disconnect is because we are so busy quizzing them to determine what they know.

One of the most important things I try to remember is that if it isn’t explicit you might need to make it explicit.  Otherwise, you can’t expect your child to know it.  Our communication is full of subtleties that someone experiencing sensory processing issues or just trying to make it through the day without having a meltdown might miss.

When you stop questioning and use comments you naturally make more things explicit.  You can’t subtly suggest someone should know it. You are forced to come right out and say it!  I also feel it takes some pressure off the child.

Everyone responds better to a partner than an interrogator.  You don’t worry about being wrong because you’re just talking with your friend.  At the risk of sounding a little like the Rev. Jessie Jackson, instead of interrogation use collaboration!

Here are some other ways I avoid asking questions.

1.  Pregnant pauses – i.e. Holding a red apple and a red car and saying while pointing to each object “the apple is red, and the car is………” (while pointing at the child and giving an expectant look).  If they don’t get it that’s okay.  I can still finish the phrase without them having to feel like they totally blew it because “hey, I was just wondering if you wanted to get in on this talking thing but if not that’s just fine”.  That’s a very different feeling compared to a question with a right or wrong answer.  Your child is provided an opportunity to learn and comprehend information even if they don’t answer.

2.  Obvious misstatements– i.e. Saying “elephants are little, little, little, little (using a squeaky voice for little)”.  Often, you hear the child respond “No Big!!!”  If not, that’s okay.  I wait a few seconds and say “Wait! Not little, Big!! Elephants are Big!”

3.  Pairing a known routine with an unknown concept– i.e. Whenever I say “up and down”, I say it the same way everytime.  When I want to point out someone or something going up and down in a book (which is a different concept and context), I locate and point out something that goes up and down in the book, such as a plane.  I say “look! the plane goes “up….and” then wait to see if the child completes the routine.  I make sure I say “up” with the same intonation as when I pick something up and put it down.  If they don’t finish it that’s okay.  I wait a few seconds and then say “down”, but I always give them a chance to finish the routine first.

4.  Start a known routine and play dumb – i.e. We are playing the “find the same picture” game.  This is a game we have played a lot.  My client is extremely proficient at matching picture to like picture.  We play the game as usual where we take turns and look for the match, on my turn I attempt to match an elephant to a giraffe picture or simply pretend to be unable to find the match. Then, I wait to see if he corrects or helps me.  If it doesn’t happen that’s okay.  I smile and laugh and say “No way! Not giraffe! It’s an elephant! That’s silly!”, or “There’s the elephant! They’re the same!”

Again, these are just fun ways you can try practicing things.  If it doesn’t work the first go round don’t worry. Often this takes time and in the begining it can take longer to spot opportunities where these techniques can be used.  Remember, when you practice with known information or known routines you decrease the cognitive load placed on your child’s brain which can often facilitate comprehension.  That’s the real purspose of teaching, to help your child know or understand the thing they didn’t know or understand.