Declarative vs. Imperative Communications

Declarative vs. Imperative Communications

The overall goal of RDI is to provide the child with many opportunities to discover mental processes and acquire knowledge.  One important aspect of providing opportunities is the communication that we immerse those opportunities into.  If we are in a command or demand state of mind, it puts the child in a role of simple compliance.  Answer the question, fill in the blank or follow the command.  None of those things necessarily allow for unique, dynamic communication and thoughts.  Therefore, increasing declarative communication is a critical goal of RDI™. Imperatives are statements made when a definite response is in mind. Declaratives are statements meant to simply share observations, feelings, and emotions.

Directives (commands) Comments
Prompts Declarations
Questions Predictions
Requests Reflections

Typical communication contains 80% declarative communication, and 20% imperative communication. Studies with people who have autism show that less than 1% of communication used with them is declarative.  Because people with autism may require more processing time, they may not appear to be listening or reacting to what is said to them.  As a result, people speaking to someone with autism often try to make things “easier” by asking questions or giving commands.  While this may be done with good intention, it limits the opportunities for the child to become a true partner in communication.

Using declarative communication can make a dramatic difference. Declarative communication removes the pressure off of the child to perform and provide the right answer. Declaratives are invitations to interact, while questions are typically cues to provide a right answer. Declarative communication is more than just a way of talking. It is a way of interacting/being with another person. It is taking a side by side position with another person, where you look out at the world together.

Declarative communication uses language forms that involve relative thinking processes — they imply that between two speakers there can be different views of reality. Examples of declarative language include invitations (“Let’s play with cars”), declamations (“I’m tired of playing with cars!”), self-narratives (“I’m walking over to the table to pick up some cars.), indirect prompts (“Now is a good time to decide which car you want to play with”), celebrations (We did it!), etc.

It is common belief that ASD children suffer from processing disorders. It seems to me that the common practice, however, is to use the ‘inverted funnel’ approach. They can process less, so we, in error, pour in more. Further, we become entrenched in testing/probing for signs of knowledge I ask and they give the correct answer, then they ‘know.’ If indeed their pathways are more restricted it would seem that we would be very judicious in communicative approaches. Ironically, whether we are parents, specialists, teachers… we simply use imperatives FAR more frequently with fragile children than we do with typically-developing children.

We are bothered by the lack of communicative initiation of spectrum children and go to great lengths to hear them speak. However, setting them up in roles of Responder for the vast majority of the time will likely only encourage their isolation, their lack of self and their lack of initiative.