What’s Wrong with the Goal for Timmy to Talk In 4-Word Utterances?

In last week’s video blog, I discussed a few ABA strategies to develop first sounds and words in children with autism. Today I’m going to discuss how to expand language carefully in children who are speaking in 1 or 2 word utterances where we have echoic control meaning if we say “say ball” the child will say “ball” without receiving a ball or without seeing a picture of a ball.

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Once we can get the child talking, and we have echoic control, and the child is saying some words—we need to expand language “carefully.”  I find is that a lot of people at this point tend to start teaching the child to use carrier phrases such as “I want ______” and some professionals start to select goals such as the child will speak in 4-5 word length utterances.  This can oftentimes backfire and lead to a child who is prompt dependent or the child’s articulation becomes so poor that they are completely unintelligible.

I learned so much from Dr. Barb Esch, an SLP and BCBA who created the echoic assessment which is part of the VB MAPP and one of the biggest ah ha’s I got from Dr. Esch years ago is that we don’t want to set goals for sentence or phrase length such as Timmy will speak in 4-5 word utterances. Setting goals like this is a very bad idea because we need to think in syllable length, not word length. The example Barb Esch used was “re-fri-ge-ra-tor,” 5 syllables, 1 word. “The black cat sat down,” is 5 words, 5 syllables. We don’t want to think in word length. We want to think in syllable length.

When I got back from the workshop that Barb Esch had done several years ago and showed Jennifer Lesher, an SLP I’ve worked with for many years many of Barb Esch’s sample worksheets including a great syllable sheet with a list of 1 syllable words to assess and teach then the 2nd column had 2 syllable words, etc.  Jennifer created another syllable sheet based on the Dr. Esch’s work and since Jennifer’s syllable sheet (which you can download under this video) has a lot of words and phrases that we commonly our clients say early on.

In the same vein, I would not recommend adding carrier phrases such as “I want” too early because what happens, and I’ve seen it so many times, is that a child might then be able to articulate “juice” or “movie” pretty well because they are at the 1 or 2 syllable level. We can all understand a handful or dozens of words. Then all of a sudden, somebody decides to add “I want,” so then instead of juice, it’s I want juice (now 3 syllables) or I want movie (4 syllables) and then it turns everything into a big mess.

If the child’s name is “Nicholas,” but sometimes they go by “Nick” or it’s “Alexander” but the parent is fine with calling the child “Alex” sometimes, go with Nick or Alex when teaching them to say their name.  The shorter, the better. And I wouldn’t teach Nick, who doesn’t have great articulation, to say “My name is Nicholas” because then it goes from one syllable “What’s your name” and the child says Nick clearly to What’s your name and the child says “My name is Nicholas” and then you can’t understand it because it’s 6 syllables instead of 1 syllable.

We want to really be careful with expanding into length of utterance in sentences when the #1 thing we should be worried about is “Can the child request their wants and needs?” preferably, even to a stranger.  Teaching and encouraging a child to speak using 1-2 syllable words and then very short 3-5 syllable phrases should be the goal, constantly making sure the child is as clear as possible.

Don’t forget to download Jennifer Lesher’s syllable sheet based off the work of Dr. Barb Esch. And focus on syllable length for all of your clients or your child.  I hope you found this video blog informative and I’ll see you next week!