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therapy approaches

ASD Workstation Colourful Semantics Activity – Free Download

The more verbal autistic children that I work with seem to develop independence and pride in their work when their school adopts a TEACCH / Workstation-type approach. However, many of the activities that are available to download of the internet aren’t, for want of a better word, very ‘language-y’. For an example, take a look at the wealth of ‘match the shape’ / ‘match the colour’ activities that are made by Twinkl.

In order to redress this a little, I have started to provide the children with my own workstation activities where I take the aspects of these activities that I like – the fact that they are self-contained, self-checking and fairly satisfying to complete, and added in a dash of language. Today it’s Colourful Semantics. Next I will make something that is designed to develop superordinate and sub-ordinate category knowledge.


Once again this activity requires you to own the Black Sheep Press Verbs Pack. This costs £15 plus VAT and it’s a must-buy for anyone working beyond the single word level with children.

The specific prompt pictures that I have selected are as follows:

Subject – Verb: man running, baby waving, girl crying
Subject – Verb – Object: boy throwing ball, boy cutting cake, girl eating banana, man reading newspaper, bear pushing pig, girl kicking balloon, man brushing dog
Subject – Verb – Location: man sitting on chair, girl sleeping on sofa, cat jumping over snowman, boy falling off chair, girl hiding behind tree, dog hiding under bed, cat standing on table.

As these pictures are copyright Black Sheep Press, I haven’t included these pictures in the download version – you will have to cut your own ones out and stick them in.

Individual pictures are provided of the subjects, verbs, objects and locations. Each page has a frame which the child can use to arrange the pictures, as well as the answer. In my version I have placed the frame behind a sheet of plastic, which has velcro spots for the elements of the predicate, as well as a flap to cover / reveal the answer. You will need to limit the number of pictures that you provide to the child so that the choice is not overwhelming.


You can download the activity here.

Developing language processing skills (3)

I’ve written already about the tasks that I use to develop semantic skills and phonological skills. In these pieces I’ve gone on at great length about how I don’t think there is such a thing for us to target as ‘auditory memory’ per se. This is because it is my view that ‘limited auditory memory’ is just another way of saying ‘impoverished semantic and phonological knowledge’. There is however one further skill that I do develop to support children’s language processing though, and that is visualisation.

Using visual imagery to anchor interpretation isn’t the be-all and end-all of verbal comprehension, but it is a good place to start. Higher-order abilities depend on it. By higher-order abilities, I mean the ability to struggle on, and to draw some kind of interpretation, where the context is only vaguely understood, where nouns and verbs are not familiar to the child, and where possible interpretations are forced into a duel, to be scrubbed and absorbed into the growing proposition. A proposition which needs to embody stability and fuzziness in equal measures, and which is somehow able to snap into a new shape upon the turn of a word or the flicker of a grin.

Back at the most basic level though, some of the children I work with have not learned the art of combining ideas that they hear together into a coherent whole. Descriptions and instructions just become a salad of ideas to them. Language goes ‘in one ear and out the other’. Working on visualisation teaches them to build their interpretations on something concrete, not on sand.

I use elements of a very clever programme called Visualizing and Verbalizing for this work.

The Visualizing and Verbalizing® (V/V®) program develops concept imagery—the ability to create an imagined or imaged gestalt from language—as a basis for comprehension and higher order thinking.

This material is difficult to come by in the UK, and postage is prohibitively expensive. I came across one of the ‘stories’ books in a clinic I used to work in, and loved it. I recently got to buy my own copy of Visualizing and Verbalizing Stories 2, for £15 plus £11 delivery from Abebooks. Compared with what’s available at the moment, that was a bit of a bargain. It’s worth keeping an eye open though.

The book has an impressive 108 stories which range from stories of 4 short sentences designed for preschool children, up to stories composed of three fairly long paragraphs designed for children in year 8. Each story is followed by five questions which probe the child’s ability to extract detail, to give the main idea, to infer, to draw conclusions and to make predictions. The stories are rich in colour and movement, and this, along with the gradual progression in complexity through the book, helps the child develop a strategy for listening that is as effective as it is simple. The scenarios all have very well thought through intentions, consequences, humour and feelings for the child to mull over, alongside the literal comprehension element.

I can’t recommend V/V enough. Hopefully the publishers won’t mind me including an example of a story from the lowest level of complexity to give you an idea of how the stories and questions work:

The little yellow fish swam slowly in the water. Then he darted into a small cave. A big red fish swam by the cave. Soon the little fish swam  out.

  1. What colour did you picture the big fish?
  2. Why do you think the little fish darted into the small cave?
  3. How do you thik the little fish felt when he saw the big fish?
  4. What might the little fish do if the big fish comes back? 
  5. What is the main idea of all these images?

Developing language processing skills (2)

neural-pathways-221719_960_720Last week I posted about developing processing skills when the focus is on enhancing the child’s semantic knowledge. This week I’ll look at the phonological side of the coin. There are certain things we know about word sorting / word learning / word finding which play into how we tend to go about boosting phonological form and metaphonological skills:

  • Words are ‘sorted’ in the brain by initial sound, giving us that tip-of-the-tongue feeling when we’re searching for a word. This means that we highlight initial sounds when we’re talking about words with learners, and we require them to do tasks such as ‘I spy’ and initial-sound odd-one-out.
  • Words which rhyme share phonological features. The words ‘hat’ and ‘mat’ have more in common with each other than not, and they therefore share some neural architecture (in terms of their production and in their recognition). Working on rhyme is one thing – showing the child how they can break the onset off from the rest of the word, and swap different onsets in and out. But the real trick is to get them to access their store of meanings as they go about such a task. This is what the task I have been developing is about.
  • Words can be long or short. Traces of word-length and syllable-structure do also seem to come into play in the tip-of-the-tongue feeling. We therefore work on children’s ability to count syllables, to complete words with missing syllables, and to delete syllables from words.
  • Words are composed of individual sounds, or phonemes [fəʊnimz]. Older children are encourage to identify medial sounds, final sounds, to append sounds, to delete sounds, robot talking, and so on.

These are tasks that are designed to support a child’s phonological awareness. Countless studies have proven the link between metaphonological knowledge and reading skills, and there is evidence that working on these kinds of tasks can pay into a child’s development of speech sounds as well.

My new task doesn’t seem particularly innovative, but it is working. Essentially I ask the child ‘think of a word that rhymes with bear which is a piece of furniture’. I also give the child a number of possible onsets to work through (i.e. s, gr, sp, ch, l). The idea is that the child will centre in on the correct answer from both directions at once – one part of the brain is thinking of different bits of furniture and checking them against ‘-air’, while the other is blindly spooling off ‘-air’ rhymes, guided by the onsets that are provided, and checking whether they are a member of the category furniture. I will share the resource just before Easter.


Developing language processing skills (1)

The Problem

If what we try to treat to develop children’s comprehension skills is anything to go by, then there are four main components to a child’s ability to understand what is said to them:

  1. The quality of their phonological form – how well they know the words, how well they listen and watch what you say to them, and the speed at which they are able to rifle through the ‘mental rolodex’ and select the word they heard.
  2. The depth or connectedness of their ‘semantic tree’ or lexicon. What is fired off when they hear a word? How deep is their knowledge of the concept that has been triggered? How sure are they that they know what they know? How good are they at integrating one concept along with the concept(s) that they have just heard? Furthermore, how much information from other associated concepts can feed into the concept that they’re dynamically pulling together, as far as is relevant, given the quality of the logical structure of their lexicon?
  3. The level of dynamism inherent in their language parser or ‘sentence-builder’; as it goes about slotting heard words in and out of the growing representation, scrubbing nonsensical interpretations, making judgements on shades of interpretation, inference and effect, and helpfully leaving semantically blurry holes for words that weren’t heard, or words that weren’t understood.
  4. Their working memory / limitations that arise from their ‘auditory scratchpad’. How many words / concepts are they able to recall and act upon at once?

Assessment often indicates that any one, or more, of these four areas is impacted. Of course, lots of other things play into a child’s understanding as well – their attention control, whether they are ‘on the same page’ as the speaker, their tiredness, and so on. But the areas listed above are the ones that are linguistically mediated.

My sense is that the ‘auditory scratchpad’ is not a thing in-and-of itself, but rather that limitations that stand out here actually follow from limitations with other aspects of the child’s phonological and semantic representation, as well as limitations that they might have building a whole from the pieces they hear.

Not that there is no such thing as working memory – famously our working memory for numbers is limited to 7, plus or minus 2, which is why we often struggle to recall a phone number that we have to hold in mind for a few seconds. Familiarity is everything though. A musician, asked to sing back a series of 7 entirely random notes would probably struggle greatly. However, write and play for them a well-structured melody, and they will be able to recall much longer phrases from the same kind of exposure.

A musician is not going to improve by spending time parroting back entirely atonal phrases. Neither is a language learner going to get better at understanding what is said to them by playing endless games of ‘I went to the shops and I bought…’.

And yet we do spend a lot of time on these kinds of games. Lots of resources exist to support working memory – for example Black Sheep Press have their Working Memory pack (25% off until the 12th of April), their Barrier Worksheets and their Barrier Concepts packs to tackle this area. I’ve worked on it quite a bit, and I will say this much – it’s not exactly fun for the adult or the child.

To me, exercising the brain, as if it were a muscle, using only fairly familiar concepts (big, red square, etc.), seems to miss the point. Gains made here are not going to mean anything when it comes to making interpretations of less familiar concepts, or under less ideal conditions. I would say instead that we need to boost the form, and then the ability to represent the form will improve.

The Task

This is why I have been trying to develop a task for children who struggle to listen to instructions in the classroom, and who have demonstrably poor processing and comprehension skills. This week I’ll be talking about the task I have been working on for children who have poor logical form. Next week I’ll talk about the parallel task I have been developing for children with poor phonological form.

I started off using pictures from the Black Sheep Press Categories pack. I wanted a two-step instruction that would challenge a child’s memory, while stretching their knowledge of features and categories. The idea was to emulate the type of classroom-based instruction where the children had to recall the second part of the instruction while they went about the first part.

For my first run at this, I placed five pictures, face down, and said something like ‘find me an animal [only one of the five was an animal], and if it’s a scary one, post it [it was to be posted 50% of the time]’; or ‘find me a toy, and if it belongs outside, post it’. The problem with this was, one child I was trying this out with (a year 1 child) started, very reasonably, to make predictions about what he was looking for (i.e. a lion, or a ball, in these cases) and this became the task for him. It stopped being a two-step instruction. Also the second part of the instruction was fairly obscure and meaningless.

I changed things around, putting six or seven pictures down, and asking questions such as ‘find me all the animals [there are always three] and put them in order of size’ and so on. This seems to be a much better task, it has some meaning in the end, and the children do genuinely forget what the second part of the task is. I work with children in pairs, and encourage them to prompt each other, and they do this in a very natural manner. Using the Black Sheep Categories pack, these are some of the distinctions I am using to get the children make as they classify and rank the objects.

Toys – how big, how expensive, how noisy, how heavy.
Animals – how big, how noisy, how scary, how good at climbing trees, how good they are at swimming, how useful they are, how easy they are to ride, how cute.
Clothes – in the order that you put them on / take them off, thickness / woolliness.
Food – how juicy, how big, how healthy, how good they are for breakfast.
Transport – how big, how fast, how high they go, how noisy, how many people use them at once.

Making things happen with words

I received a delivery this morning: 10 massive balloons. I’ll take the elastic bands off before I use them. These were just £2.29 from Amazon. They’ll last hundreds of sessions of language stimulation.

I use these in much the same way as I use my bubble trumpet: to elicit basic words from children who really want to make things happen. So this is words such as ‘balloon’ to request for me get the balloon out of the bag, ‘blow’ or ‘bigger’ before each breath for me to make them bigger, and ‘ready, steady go’ for me to let the balloon go for it to jerk dramatically around the room.

This represents a great deal of language from one piece of rubber. The child has to go via me to get what they want, and most children really do want to see the balloon whizz around (I do remember one child who dry heaved while I began blowing the balloon up… I tried something else with that child). There is also an element of cause and effect with the balloon – the child that requests ‘go’ without first asking ‘blow’ will just see me drop an uninflated balloon on the floor.

This type of approach (holding off before you give something motivating, and always expecting a little more from the child who is attempting to request) is ideal for children with autistic spectrum disorder and more generally for those who lack experience of directing the behaviour of others through language. These children are all, to one degree or another, inexperienced or disorganised with using language to request. They might look at your hand, pull your hand, get frustrated, go inert, do a shake of their body, and so on. They might use words, but at the wrong time. All of this can be seen as being partly intentional behaviour. The therapist’s job is to model the words (or in some cases, the signs), and wait for the child to make the leap and use them.

Things I do now that I didn’t do before

My current job, working directly for schools, has enabled me to focus on the way I do therapy. It’s a rare opportunity, because the administrative side of the job for community SLTs can be overwhelming. I do very little but therapy, and I can’t help but get better at it. So here’s a couple of things I do now, that I didn’t do before.

I work on speech and language at the same time
The last picture of my most recent post demonstrates that I tend to work on everything at once. If I’m working on the /k/ sound, for example, once the child has started to use it at single word level, I’ll get my soft toys out, act out some scenarios (e.g. teddy dropping a car) and ask the child ‘what’s happening’. I’ll use my Colourful Semantics pictures, combined with Jolly Phonics pictures, to help the child to structure her sentence. Teddy will drop it over and over again, start saying things like ‘the car hurt my foot’, ‘it’s a heavy car’, and so on, and the child is expected to say some phrases for herself. I’ll also throw in the occasional semantic task when I’m working on phonology because it is both the phonological and the semantic features of a word which anchor it to others, and make it accessible during sentence-building.

I have found a way to support language and play for children in small groups
The single best way to support a child’s language development (children under 6, who simply lack linguistic experience, or speak English as an additional language) is to play with them, patiently following their lead and providing the language that matches their thoughts. Supplement, augment, and mildly dramatise what they’re doing. Repeat words and structures over and over again. And don’t ask lots of pointless questions. This approach has the added benefit of developing a child’s attention skills, play skills and their ability to interact purposefully with an adult while enriching their receptive and expressive language.

However the problem we face in nursery and reception classes is so enormous that education staff and SLTs working together can never be resourced well enough to provide this level of input per child. That’s why what I do is to take the best bits of that optimal ‘modelling language in play’ experience, and adapt them into a group session.

I conduct phases of sentence building (essentially picture description, see example pictures below, using the Colourful Semantics system) followed by phases of adult-led play, where toys identical to the toys in the pictures ‘make it happen’. The child whose turn it is is encouraged to get involved in a defined manner, and language is modelled and stimulated like mad. Then that phase is over, the toys go back behind a barrier and then the next child starts sentence building from a new picture.

This is the essence of what is a very involved and fiddly system. I even draw speech sound targets into this if appropriate (see the fifth picture below for a cheeky way I do this). I’m working very hard on putting together a pilotable version of my programme at the moment, then my plan is to publish it, along with the toys (different toys, and pictures, of course). In some kind of massive suitcase. It’ll be a monster, and, if it ever gets made it will be phenomenally expensive (if the eye-watering £360 for the rather basic Symbolic Play Test is anything to go by).

So this is what the little slices of play that I set up for my kids look like…

boy reading a book
dog knocking over a tower
boy spilling water
dog drinking water
the boy is drawing a saw