Autism and Augmentative or Alternative Communication supports (AAC) often go hand in hand, especially when it comes to students who have no speech or very minimal speech (i.e. a few rote words or phrases). The idea that students like this need and benefit from options other than spoken language to communicate is relatively easy to grasp, and-partly because of this-the jump into Spelling to Communicate can be an easy one to make.
However, a number of students who benefit from this sensory-motor based approach can be more aptly described as unreliable speakers: they have speech that often seems out of place or scripted one minute, and then to be an accurate reflection of their wants, needs, and thoughts the next! Though it may seem like the best course would be to continue to develop speech for these students, the same principles that apply to non- or minimally speaking students are accurate for unreliable speakers.
Just like non-speaking ASD individuals who seem stuck repeating the same actions (spinning the car wheels, repeating the same portion of a video, etc.), so too do unreliable speakers become stuck in repeating or saying certain phrases in responses to certain stimuli. In many cases, the speech we accept as reliable from Autistic individuals who identify this way is actually a reflection of 1) over-practiced, rote phrases or 2) impulsive (i.e. non-purposeful) responses, both of which are triggered by certain stimuli. Many times, the over-practiced phrases develop an emotional component to them, which must be met and fulfilled by “completing the loop”. The student that requires Mom to respond to the question “Going to the store?” with “We go on Saturdays” (sometimes multiple times in a row) has developed such a loop, and both Mom and student are trapped: not responding-or providing a different response-might mean a meltdown. Some Autistics have compared such loops to an addiction or OCD in that they are overwhelming and very difficult for students to stop on their own.
In addition to fulfilling an emotional component, verbal loops also offer a way for Autistic individuals to engage their brains. Because many ASD students’ cognitive abilities are judged based on their speech and actions (which we know are unreliable), they are consistently underestimated and not given access to new and challenging information and learning opportunities. Without meaningful external engagement, the brain will look for ways to occupy and regulate itself, and one way is through verbal loops or other repetitive stims.
So what to do? Well, as coaches (be we parents or professionals) we have to act as an external cue for our students to help them 1) calm the emotional response/regulate and 2) re-direct the automatic or impulsive action (i.e. verbal loop) into something more purposeful, like spelling or exercising. For me, it was helpful to think of loops as being like habits: if I want to change my diet and stop eating brownies for breakfast, my willpower alone will not be enough and I will definitely eat the brownies when I see them sitting on the counter. However, if I change part of the environment by removing the stimulus (i.e. stop buying/making brownies) or re-directing to an alternative (i.e. a healthy chocolate smoothie) then it becomes much more difficult for me to engage in that habit and continue the cycle. So it is with verbal loops: we HAVE to change part of the cycle to start developing new, purposeful habits. Every person is unique, and will have more success with certain strategies than others, so experimentation is key! Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
Above all, FEED THE BRAIN! Keeping the mind engaged with objective, interesting lessons will help students avoid loops in the first place-they are new stimuli. Present information that is appropriate for your child/teen/adult’s age, and talk to him or her as you would an equivalent neurotypical student. Our students have been treated and spoken to like they are not as intelligent as they are (very much due to therapists like my pre-letterboard self who told parents to “simplify the message so they will understand”). Just making the shift of talking to our students like anyone else can give their brains the input that allows them to attend to something other than their routine stims.
Engage the body in purposeful motor through spelling, exercise, or a rhythmic task (ex. Clap the right hand to my left, now left hand to my right, keep going). If the body and brain are directed to another motor movement, it is much harder to continue the verbal loop.
Disregard the loop (Keep poking, where’s the next letter) or acknowledge once (Ex. Yep, we’ve talked about the store, let’s keep going) and move on.
Do something unexpected. For parents, this may be a strategy that needs to be used extensively at first: as I alluded to earlier, we (i.e. traditional therapists) have told families to respond to their children in a certain way, and unwittingly caused them to create verbal loops for which the trigger is now “Mom” or “Dad”. Loops around family members or familiar environments can therefore be deeply entrenched and take more time to work through. Try giving a response that’s ridiculous (“Oh hufflepuff!” in response to “Go to the store?”) or practicing in a new environment, like the park or library.
If you and your child/adult family member with ASD still feel stuck, then having some guidance from a coach or provider can be helpful to give you the boost you need. And of course, drawing from the experience of other parents who have been through the process is priceless! The community here in Middle Tennessee continues to grow, as do our neighbors and comrades in Georgia, Virginia, California, and across the world. Resources abound, and help is always here!