Last month I wrote about one of the processes that help with language comprehension called visualization. As a Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in autism, language comprehension is a topic that comes up on a nearly daily basis for me. We know that the brain not only hears (or sees in the case of writing) words, but that our brain also works to create visual images from those words to create an overall understanding of the person is saying (or writing). Within that visualization process is another process in which our minds use “memory matching” to give a starting point for visualization. For example, when I listened to the book “The Martian”, I had no problem visualizing the word astronaut. I could picture the space suit, the straight-armed, floaty walk and the bubble helmet. When the writer began speaking about Oxygenators, however, I did not have a clue. I had no memory or experience to match with that word, so I had to just get past it in my mind. If there were too many words that I had to get past, I believe I would have easily given up on the book. Luckily this was not the case, and I had enough experiences with books and movies to know I would like the movie better that the book. I knew that the technical things that I could not visualize would fall into the capable hands of the director, and that could sit back and enjoy. Which I did. Matt Damon is awesome.
So how can we help a child with autism to visualize? I think we first have to realize that the child’s experience bank is likely different than what we expect. Memories based on experience can be limited and more narrowly focused in people with autism. Many of my friends with autism have the ability to remember minute details, but struggle more with the overall picture of things. An important step in helping children to visualize is to provide the child with rich experiences in a safe and deliberate way. When experience sharing with a child, keep the wording to a minimum and the pace slow. Use words and labels with care to spotlight what is important in the experience for your child. A wonderful way to help build your child’s experience bank is to take photos of important parts of the experience to look at later with your child. Reviewing the experiences gives you another chance to spotlight and label memories that will later serve as anchors in the visualization process. Another way to help your child begin to visualize is to use previews before doing something. Just like the previews at the movie theater, you can provide your child with a few images to connect to so that he can understand and look forward to more experiences. For example, we can preview a visit to Gramma’s house by remembering what it looks like, things we will see there, and what we might do there. “We are going to visit Gramma’s house. She has a big, white swing on her porch. She always keeps her fluffy blue blanket there. I bet you get to snuggle Gramma on the swing.”
If your child has a good experience bank to pull from, you can use visualization in more complex ways to improve comprehension of language. The Visualizing and Verbalizing Program through Lindamood-Bell has excellent ways and strategies for helping your child to grow visualization skills. At Pathways, we use this program and adapt as necessary for the individual child’s needs. Here is a link: