Saturday, October 19, 2013

Now you're talking my language!

by Martha Gabler, parent of nonverbal 17 year old boy with autism.

Bonjour!    Hola!     Ciao!

Hello! If you travel to another country, it’s helpful to know a few words in the native language. It makes getting around so much easier and builds relationships with local residents. But, having a few words takes you only so far. To really communicate, you need to make a study of the local language.

Now let’s look at kids with autism; they seem to live in a different world from ours. Their condition is often characterized by deficits and delays in language and communication. How do you communicate with a kid who can’t stand listening to human speech? How do you find out what is bothering a child who is hitting or biting, if he can’t explain? My son with autism is profoundly nonverbal. We could not communicate with him and had very hard times during the early years.

Over time I discovered that there is a language, or more specifically, a form of communication in which my son excelled: he is brilliant at comprehending positive reinforcement. Eureka! We achieved communication. With communication came learning, and with learning we were finally able to find a path out of the wilderness and move on to greener pastures.

The method I stumbled upon during the course of our journey is called TAGteach, or Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and involves the use of positive reinforcement to achieve behavior goals. This part is familiar to many autism families.

The next part will probably be something new and different—after all, we are traveling in a different country. Here it is: the unique aspect of TAGteach is that it combines positive reinforcement with an audible event marker signal. The marker—the key communication tool used in the system—makes a distinctive “click” sound to mark a behavior at the time it occurs. The mark (or “click”) means YES, YOU DID SOMETHING GOOD, and the absence of the mark (or “click”) means TRY AGAIN.

With my event marker (sometimes referred to as a “tagger” or “clicker), I was able to “tag” my child every time he did something good. “Good” things were behaviors like Quiet Mouth, Both Feet On The Floor, Hands Still, or Eye Contact. The procedure is: Observe child, “tag” (press clicker) when child performs Quiet Mouth (or other desired behavior), then reinforce child (give a treat or token).

When I started doing this, I was amazed by all the good behaviors my son was able to deliver. Tantruming? With screaming and stomping? I tagged Quiet Mouth and Both Feet On The Floor; the tantrum was over in 12 minutes with my son sitting nicely on the sofa and no exertion on my part. Bolting? I tagged Walks Next To Parent. Toe walking? I tagged Heel On Ground. My son’s world changed. Previously, it had been incomprehensible to him. With the tag and positive reinforcement, he understood precisely what he was being rewarded for, and he responded by producing more of the desired behaviors.

The more I communicated with him via tags/clicks and positive reinforcement, the more skills he gained and the happier and better behaved he became. Despite the lack of speech, despite the sensory issues, the tag rang loud and clear and told him he had done something good. He loved that and responded brilliantly. My favorite moments were when I would tag him for something, and a look of total comprehension flooded across his face, “Oh! So that’s what I’m supposed to do!”

We found the right language and made a study of it. It is called positive reinforcement with an event marker signal. With it, we quickly and easily taught my son new behaviors. When he was able to walk nicely with us, sit quietly in the car, and follow instructions we were able to take him to many new places. He likes to travel, he likes to see the world and he likes to have fun. He was even able to go away to sleep over summer camp for a week and have a wonderful time without my presence. I got some very nice compliments from camp staff about Doug’s co-operative behavior and his happy attitude. We are in a much better place now and enjoy life with this charming teen.

I think TAGteach is an outstanding method for working with children with autism, and I recommend it to all autism families for their consideration. Consider this: TAGteach is scientific—based on the principles of ABA—and effective. It is easy to learn, easy to do, and almost no cost. Taggers/clickers cost anywhere from $.79 to $1.50, and the treats are things most families already have around the house. TAGteach is flexible and portable, and easy to do both at home and outside. It’s great for building skills in the community. For more information, please see my website at If you have questions, please contact me through the website at the Questions for Martha link.

I hope you enjoy learning about this new language! It’s easier than French or Spanish, and it’s a great way to communicate with our kids, who can be very challenging customers.

Au revoir!

About Martha

Martha Gabler is the author of the book, Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and two sons. The younger one, age 17, is profoundly nonverbal and was diagnosed at age three with severe autism. In the early years the family struggled with many extremely difficult behaviors including aggression and self-injury. Life was very hard. Now life is good and the Gablers are a happy family.

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