The people in your language-depleted neighborhood
By Ellen Notbohm

Who are the people in your neighborhood?
Are you humming along? To a generation of children (and their parents) who grew up with “Sesame Street,” those words ring familiar as the title of a song that was practically an anthem in its time. If you’re one of those children or parents, you know the answer to the musical question: the people in your neighborhood “are the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street each day.” In the pre-compact disc era, my kids had cassette tapes of the song that they played until the oxide literally fell off the tape, reducing Ernie to a drunken slur (which they loved just as much). I recently asked a young parent if he remembered the song from his childhood, whether his own child watched “Sesame Street” now and if “The People in Your Neighborhood” was still part of the show. He lit up; of course he remembered the song! And yes, his son watches “Sesame Street.” But “The People in Your Neighborhood” is no longer part of it.

The young dad’s answer confirmed a sad hunch that had come to me a few days earlier as I ran a round of morning errands: we no longer talk to the people in our neighborhood.
For many parents of children with autism and other language-processing challenges, improving our children’s delayed or impaired ability to talk is near the top of the priority list. I can never forget how my son’s early struggles with speech affected his ability to socialize, impacted his emotional health and obscured his cognitive capabilities. On that long road to developing functional speech, one of the first pieces of advice our speech therapist gave us was to work hard at maintaining a language-rich environment around him. We learn much of our speech imitatively, she said, and a child not frequently exposed to other speaking people will develop language much more slowly. Parents and language professionals should actively seek settings where a child will be exposed to typically developing kid talk and everyday conversation.

I don’t consider myself adept at small talk. Chitchat with strangers is difficult and sometimes even stressful for me. But everything is a matter of degree. My son occasionally pulls me up short by openly admiring the (perceived) ease with which I exchange light conversation with store clerks or other brief-encounter folks. While this seems like no more than baseline communication to me, it clearly is more than that to him, and it has led us into discussions about how even the most banal pleasantries help us connect with others. The weather is a popular subject because it’s something we all share. With practice we can learn to untie our tongues by finding other commonalities to comment upon such as the items we buy, the holidays we celebrate, the events in our community.

Wait—did I say “with practice”?
I did. Conversational speech, of any duration, is a learned skill, and often extraordinarily more so for children with autism. The essential component of any learned skill is practice, practice and more practice. And that is what came to me on that morning round of errands: why it is that small talk remains a challenge for our kids, and how it is that we no longer talk to the people in our neighborhood. My morning was a potent example. I got cash from an ATM; I didn’t talk to a bank teller. I scanned my groceries through the self-checkout line; I didn’t talk to a live checker. Our library now has automated checkout; I didn’t talk to the librarian. I mailed a package at the Automated Postal Center without talking to a clerk. I bought movie tickets through the Fandango dispenser. I’d bypassed at least half a dozen of what, not so long ago, would have been opportunities for human interaction. Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton was recently quoted as saying that the scarcest resource of the 21st century, “after water and food and all of that,” will be human attention.

A language-rich environment? More like a language-depleted landscape.
Automation and electronic communication have their immutable place in our culture. But if we value the stimulation, joy and functionality of conversation, we must teach our children, by example, to come out from behind their computer and phone screens and practice talking to others, actively looking for avenues by which we can encourage our children to become conversational. Our speech therapist’s advice about creating a language-rich environment came at a time when the use of language hadn’t yet been appropriated by screens, when being social included vocal inflections, facial expression and body language. You know, like Skype without the screen. Of the many parent-teen conflicts my husband and I expected to face, we never dreamed we’d be considered counter-culture because we wanted our children to speak to other humans.

Sooner or later, our kids will have to talk to the people in their neighborhood because some relationships cannot be relegated to a screen—the doctor, the dentist, the bus driver, the hair stylist, the flight attendant, the policeman, the firefighter, the clergy, the lifeguard, the piano teacher, the coach, the lawyer, the judge. Seemingly trivial small talk lays part of the foundation for being able to speak to others in situations wherein there is no alternative to face-to-face communication—and for situations wherein, it is enjoyable to do so.

So let’s restore some of that language-rich environment. This excerpt, adapted from my book “1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s” (2nd edition, 2010, co-authored with Veronica Zysk), will get you started.

From Chapter 2: Communication and Language
Maintaining a language-rich environment day to day is one of the best ways parents and teachers can nurture speech and conversation development. Here are a few simple ways to do that.

Send your child’s teacher or speech language pathologist a note each Monday listing three things your child did over the weekend. Ask that they engage the child in conversation about these things.

Answer your child every time he speaks to you, letting him know you value everything he has to say. Look at him when you speak to him. Do this for the nonverbal child as well, acknowledging all attempts to communicate, whether you yet understand him.

Singing is speech. If your child learns songs easily, use that strength to enhance his language skills. Talk about any new words in the song he may not understand. Distinguish nonsense words from real words.

Institute the two-minute rule for conversations. Being put on the spot to generate conversation can be very stressful for your child. Practice a two-minute/two-minute rule. Tell him you’d like to talk about his day at school or a subject of his choosing. Give him two minutes to gather his thoughts, then converse for two minutes. Observing manageable parameters removes the performance-anxiety factor. And instead of asking the same question every day – what did you do at school? – try asking how his day went. This gives him a chance to explore his feelings, not just his actions, and gives you a wider window on his experiences of the day.

Institute the two-second pause for responses. Many families converse at a rapid-fire pace that leaves the child with autism unable to keep up. To slow the overall pace of exchanges and give your child a better chance to participate, observe this rule: wait two seconds before responding.

© 2005, 2012 Ellen Notbohm
Please contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including posting on the Internet.