First sessions: introducing drawn communication to your child

Materials: Have big drawing surfaces somewhere close to where you are interacting with your child. Large newsprint or manila drawing pads are great (check your local art store). You can also use a big white board or chalkboard (if you use one of these options, it would be a good idea to keep a digital camera close at hand to take pictures of the drawings before they are wiped away - you want your child to be able to go back through the drawings and think about them). Markers (washable at first) are your best media because they make clear colourful lines, and the fact that you can’t erase them makes the drawing move forward (rather than endlessly erasing to make a “perfect” picture). Get big rolls of paper and tape them on your table as an art “tablecloth” (like they do in some restaurants) - this is great for family dinners, where each person can add cartoon drawings to make a visual “conversation”.

Start with favourite topics - you need to have your child’s willing attention for the approach to work. Over the years, I have drawn everything: Halloween (Adam’s first love), heavy construction machines, Thomas the Tank Engine, Pokemon, Disney, Star Wars, hats, kitchen appliances, animals … impossible to name them all. Whatever your child likes, that’s what you’ll learn to draw.

K - apr 24-14 - train drawing

Draw your toy play: Have paper beside the train set or marble track or castle. Draw out silly action-packed interactions - Thomas crashes into James, the marbles go through the spinner then round and round down the “toilet bowl” funnel, the knights all fall off the castle walls. Watch your child to see what catches his/her attention and that’s what you put on the big paper. After you’re done playing, tape the picture up on the wall so your child can consider and remember and relive the fun times, maybe even use it as a visual communication board to request a favourite game again.

Add in text: Pair written text with the drawings (key words and phrases, simple sentences), since written words can help ASD children to impose order and meaning on the auditory sound sequence of spoken language.

Add in people: Draw your child, yourself, friends and family into the picture. Draw out favourite “people” games like hide & seek or chase. (click here for simple guidelines for drawing people)

Add in emotions: Start with mostly positive emotions, since this is a difficult topic that can trigger emotional reactions in your child. Use characters that are slightly removed from real life as you introduce a range of emotions (e.g. have Thomas the Tank Engine feel angry or sad, have the marbles be scared when they reach the steep drop). Let your child’s reactions guide you so that you move at a pace that is comfortable for them. Here’s an early drawing of Adam’s that shows a cartoon man’s emotional reactions to falling off a cliff:

Note: As you’re drawing together, take any sound approximation or gesture as meaningful (whether or not you’re certain it is). This gives your child the clear message that you’re treating their sounds and actions as communication, and it encourages them to modify the noises and movements to control your actions.

© Sheila Bell, Speech-Language Pathologist, “Autism and the Art of Communication” ~ 2015