When Foxy was being evaluated by our public school system for a trail with a high tech communication device, I had to answer a lot of questions about his communication skills at the time.
For the most part, this was not too difficult. As an autistic person, answering specific questions is one of the easiest ways for me to communicate information, and all the better when I’m passionate about the subject matter. I am very passionate about both my child, and communication.
However, I got stumped by one question.
Can he participate in turn taking while communicating?
I wasn’t stumped because I didn’t know whether or not Foxy had that skill. I was stumped because I didn’t understand what the evaluator meant. “What do you mean by turn taking while communicating?” I asked.
The evaluator tried to explain it to me. I still didn’t get it. Foxy’s special education teacher, who knew me better than the evaluator, also tried. No dice.
Finally I looked at my partner, Mischa, who knows me very, very well and has a good grasp on how autism impacts my communication. He tried to explain it.
Nope. Nothing. Crickets. An autistic blind spot had revealed itself. And now, having used up so much energy trying to understand this neurotypical social ritual, I was irritated and confused and no longer able to effectively advocate for my kid. I’m lucky my partner and his early intervention team were able to complete the effort and get the trial I wanted.
Which illustrates a really important concept: many regular old neurotypical social routines are not accessable to autistics. Trying to access them feels frustrating, defeating, and really wears us out.
Recently, a speech therapist who evaluated Foxy for private therapy services set a long term goal of participation in “30 circles of communication”. I remembered reading about circles of communication in Erin Human’s valuable critique of D.I.R/Floortime. I revisited that piece and something clicked in my brain. “Circles of communication” was the same thing as “turn taking while communicating”. It’s like volley ball. This therapist wanted Foxy to be able to keep the communication ball going until it had traveled over the net 30 times, to expand the number of “turns” in a single interaction significantly.
Here’s an example: a child points to a toy robot on a shelf. His mom takes it down and hands it to him. He runs off to play with the robot, ending the interaction. There was only one turn. The communication ball only went over the net once, from child to mother. Also, no words were used, just gestures.
Or, a child points to a toy robot on a shelf.
Mom says, “hmmm, you’re pointing at something, but I don’t know what it is. Can you tell me?” (She knows it’s the robot, she’s just trying to create opportunities for more circles of communication.)
The child might make a vocalization now.
In response, Mom picks up a container of blocks, and playfully asks, “Did you say you wanted these blocks?”
Child shakes his head no, laughing.
Mom says, “No? Not the blocks? Maybe you want your...school bus puzzle!” She shows the puzzle to him.
Child giggles and says, “Nnnnn. Wo! Wo!”
“Oh! you want your robot! Can you say robot?”
Mom, “What? I couldn’t quite understand?”
Child, “WO! WO!”
Mom, “Great job! Robot! Okay, let’s get your robot down. Where should we play with him?”
Child runs to a corner of the room and looks at mom expectantly.
Mom says, “Over there? Okay! Here we come!”
That was twelve circles of communication, and included both gestures and words.
Turn taking in communication is a neurotypical developmental milestone. Expanding circles of communication is a neurotypical social goal. Trying to make autistic children do this is a disservice. Our brains are different. We have different strengths and abilities that really should be nutured and supported so that we can reach our full potential.
We have Economy* of Turn Taking. That means, we are geared towards figuring out how to communicate all the required information using the fewest possible turns. This is why autistics often talk for a long time without giving space for anyone else to say anything. We want to get everything out in one turn. We also may look at interacting as having two roles: the communicator and the listener. The roles don’t switch back and forth within the interaction. Trying to figure out at what point in the interaction the roles are supposed to change can be really tough, or even impossible for us.
We also have Economy of Communication. Through a pretty impressive analysis of what we need to communicate and who we are communicating it to, we will use the mode or modes of communication that will take the least amount of effort. This is because all communicating is pretty taxing for us, even when we enjoy it. If we use the fewest possible resources to communicate something, we are more likely to have enough resources left to communicate something else later.
By saying fewer words now, we will have more to use later. We say less because we want to communicate more. If a gesture will work, we can save even more words. If we can borrow words using echolalia or scripting, we get to save our own.
Maybe we only have 30 circles of communication to use in a day. If someone purposely makes us use them all at once, we may not be able to commuicate something really important later.
I’m passionate about access to communication for everyone. I fought for our public school system to provide my child with an Ipad loaded with an AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) app that can hold up to 14,000 words. I want my child to have access to any word he may one day want to use, and I work with him every day to increase his expressive and receptive vocabulary by modeling multiple modes of communication, including AAC, oral speech, laminated pictures, ASL, echolalia, gestures, and music.
We declined the services of the speech therapist who wanted to expand his circles of communication to 30 over the course of a year. My job is to give my child the access to communication tools and support in learning to use them. To give him his own voice.
It is not my job to decide how he will use it. That’s his journey. I trust him to know what communication stratagies will be most effective for him in any given situation. I will continue to do everything I can expand his options, and I will reflect on how cool it is to watch my kiddo experiment with these options, putting the pieces together to craft a style of communication that is uniquely and authentically his.
*One of the dictionary definitions of economy is “careful management of available resources”.
I’m an autistic mom with a neurodivergent partner. Together we parent two autistic kids and herd five cats.