My Favorite Color is Rainbow: Language Barriers

Author: Jessica DeRuiter RN, BSN

The absence of language was our biggest barrier thus far. I used to cry at the thought of never hearing Harvey say "I love you." I couldn't bear the thought of him always being without a voice and relying on assistance his whole life. I would pray continuously for God to "loose his tongue" and give him a voice. One of the definitions of the word loose is to "free from restraint" (, 2019). I thought this prayer was very fitting as I saw him as being restrained by his inability to communicate. I just wanted freedom for him while the speech therapists told me they believed he would never have it.

He began to act out in ways that I didn't quite understand at the time. He would scream and sometimes cry for the entire day. His language consisted of what seemed to be random sounds and screams. During the sixteen months of speech therapy, the only sign he learned was for the word "more." He would only sign the word "more" when bubbles were being used, so it was not helpful other than for play. I could say his name, and he wouldn't look at me or act in a way that made me believe he knew I was seeking his attention. He typically found comfort in our embrace and gentle touch, but even that was not reassuring to him on his days of screaming. I began to ask myself: "Why this was happening? Is it the autism itself? "Was there anything that triggered him? "Was there anything that made him feel better, and is he in pain?

I joked to my husband one night when he was expressing his frustrations to me and said: "well, maybe he has a giant diaper wedgie and can't tell you he needs it picked out." I was trying to make light of a very upsetting situation, and the light bulb went off. It seems like such an obvious solution now looking back, but the issue was his lack of communication. He couldn't speak in any way to tell us anything, and it was very frustrating for him. Once the screaming started, he just couldn't shut it off until he fell asleep.

I went through the entire house the next day and took pictures of every single preferred toy and object Harvey had, his cups, favorite foods, and containers, diapers, the bathtub, and gathered pictures of family members. I had these pictures developed and began to craft them all into magnets. I introduced only a few of them at first. I would show him the picture and tell him the word that correlated with it. I then placed it on the fridge in his reach. He was happy to see the things he enjoyed.

One of the pictures was of his favorite toy. I held it out to him and said the name of the toy; he smiled and went to get it. I burst out in excitement and hugged and kissed him when he brought it back to me. I was not only excited that he understood, but I was also excited to see him express emotion. He did not smile often, and for quite some time, only smiled when being tickled and sat stone-faced otherwise.

We finally had something! We practiced this daily, and sometimes he showed interest while other days I felt he was ignoring me. He was still retaining the information though it didn't seem like it at the time. He began to use the pictures for more than just play; he started to tell me what he wanted with them. The screaming had stopped entirely, and a new peace fell over our home. It seems like such an easy solution, but at the time, I was not thinking in this direction. The magnets not only opened up his ability to communicate, but they also allowed him to learn word associations.

Harvey at 26 months old, non-verbal, bringing me our picture. He smooched the picture and in turn I picked him up and covered him in smooches

Harvey at 26 months old, non-verbal, bringing me our picture. He smooched the picture and in turn I picked him up and covered him in smooches

At two years and two months old, he was finally able to communicate. I'll never forget the day when I was at work, and my husband sent me a picture of Harvey holding the magnet I made of him and I together. My husband told me he was carrying it around all day and kept bringing it to him as if he was asking for me. When I got home he met me at the door and handed the picture to me. I couldn't help but cry happy tears.

Parents play an important role in the development of their children specifically when it comes to language. "It has been suggested that parent involvement in communication interventions for children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is important for positive outcomes. Parent-mediated communication interventions are commonly implemented in Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) practice for children with ASD. Although these approaches are often regarded as a best practice, parent perceptions of their acceptability have not been thoroughly investigated.

As parents play an integral role in parent-mediated communication interventions, accounts of their experiences are required to inform future practice" (Walsh, 2019).

There are many resources available you just have to find out what works best for your child and personalize their care. For example, music has been shown to be beneficial for many children with disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum. "Given its universal appeal, intrinsic reward value, and ability to modify brain and behavior, music may be a potential therapeutic aid in autism" (Sharda et al., 2018).

Music may help stimulate areas of the brain needed for growth and development including areas that control language. "Greater brain responses to song versus speech in frontotemporal brain regions and intact emotional responsiveness to music have also been demonstrated.

Supporting anecdotal reports from parents and caregivers have described the profound effects music has had on children with ASD. The positive impact of music on social skills has been demonstrated beyond ASD. Typically developing children are more likely to play with another following a shared musical experience and joint musical interactions can enhance emotional empathy, prosociality, and bonding in children.

More recently, neuroimaging studies have shown that participating in musical activities engages a multimodal network of brain regions involved in hearing, movement, emotion, pleasure, and memory thus allowing the transfer of music-related therapeutic effects to non-musical domains through structural and functional brain changes" (Sharda et al., 2018).

Sing songs play instruments, dance, paint, read, and play with your child. They are always learning even when it seems as though they are not.

May God bless you and provide a method of communication necessary to connect with your child as well.

References (2019). Definition of LOOSE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Jun. 2019].

Sharda, M., Tuerk, C., Chowdhury, R., Jamey, K., Foster, N., Custo-Blanch, M., Tan, M., Nadig, A. and Hyde, K. (2018). Music improves social communication and auditory–motor connectivity in children with autism. Translational Psychiatry, 8(1).

Walsh, K. (2019). Parent Perceptions of Participation in, and Outcomes of, a Parent-Mediated Communication Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Jun. 2019].