Parenting and Language Development

During the holiday season, there are many social gatherings. These are a great opportunity to catch up with friends and family. For me, as a parent and behavior analyst working with children with autism, they are also a great opportunity to observe other children and learn about how other families navigate the difficulties of parenting.

A common conversation between parents might go something like this —

Dad A: “Billy takes forever in the shower. It drives me nuts!”

Dad B: “Wow! Billy can shower by himself! We still bathe Cindy in the tub. How long has Billy been doing that? How about your kids, Mom C?”

Dad A: “Billy has been showering by himself for about six months now.”

Mom C: “Our kids have been showering for a while too.”

Assuming all children are of similar age and skill level, what has kept Cindy from learning how to shower by herself? How do we know whether our children are ready to start showering (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc) by themselves? Usually, there are a set of pre-requisite skills needed to complete these tasks. For instance, a child needs to have proper motor skills in order to dress themselves. This is something we might explicitly teach them how to do — pull arms through a sleeve. In addition to these pre-requisite skills, children must be given the opportunity to practice the skills. Often times, caregivers anticipate the needs of their children and fulfill these needs (helping them get dressed, getting them the snack or toy they want before they ask, etc).

Upon witnessing (and being part of) interactions between parents as the one I described above, I wonder “do we deprive our children and clients of opportunities for growth?” One way in which we might relates to the role of caregivers in the development of language in their children (one example). Modeling appropriate language (words, phrases, grammar) and allowing opportunities children to practice skills they may acquire by watching us or by practicing with us, both are key to promoting functional communication in children. A child that does not have the opportunity to ask for water because her parents anticipate her needs is deprived of learning opportunities and may struggle in novel contexts in which caregivers cannot anticipate her needs (such as school or with a babysitter).

A recent report suggested that parents of children with autism use shorter and less complex sentences when speaking to their children compared to parents of children without a diagnosis. Thus, in an attempt to ensure their children understand what parents are saying, these same children are exposed to fewer and simpler words. This, in turn, could negatively impact their language development. What could these parents do differently? How could behavior analysts be of help?




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