Breaking habits can be difficult for all of us! One of the most ingrained habits many of us fight against is the language we use when supporting a nonspeaker. If we’re not careful, we can fall into the trap of using language that is infantilizing, insulting, or just not helpful. We’re here to offer suggestions for respectful language that can turn impulsive moments into purposeful movement.
My top 3 tips for respectful language in tricky situations are:
1. Keep your emotions in check One of the biggest obstacles to effectively supporting a nonspeaker is your own dysregulation. During an impulsive moment, it is common to feel nervous, overwhelmed, or uncertain. However, we have to make sure these feelings don’t take control of the situation. If you are dysregulated, it is difficult to provide the types of support that your nonspeaker needs.
2. Coach the body In impulsive moments, the brain knows what to do but the body has difficulty following through. Hello brain/body disconnect! To bypass this disconnect, we want to coach the body directly. Think about using this formula: Actionable Verb + Body Part = Coaching the Body.
If the words alone are not offering enough support, combine this with another type of cue. You can include a gesture (point, wave, or other movement), model the movement while coaching the body, or even offer a tactile cue by tapping the body part you’re coaching.
3. Avoid using the word “no” In most situations, “No” is simply not helpful. For example, imagine that you’re driving to my house and you’ve gotten turned around and so you call me for directions. I ask you, “Where are you?” and you tell me that you are on Elm Street and I respond with, “No, that’s not it” and then go silent. Is that going to help you find my house? Of course not! The word no along with other vague supports like “that’s not right” or “try again” does not offer any helpful or useful information. Instead, we want to provide specific coaching for what the speller should try to do with their body (Actionable Verb + Body Part = Coaching the Body)
So how does this play out in specific situations? Let’s take a look at a few common impulsivities and how we can respectfully coach someone through them:
When someone starts to run out of the room, your first instinct might be to shout “No” or “Come back”. We also hear “It’s not time to leave yet” or “We’re not finished”. Unfortunately, those cues aren’t particularly helpful and will often further dysregulate the individual.
To support a nonspeaker more respectfully, we can use phrases like “Turn your body” or “Slow your feet”. We can also reframe the situation with sentiments like “Let me help you slow your body down” or “I want to help you keep your body in the room”. This language conveys not only your intentions to support but that you understand that the current actions are not purposeful.
To level up your respectful support, pair this language with a purposeful alternate movement. Some ideas are: “Stomp your feet, turn your body toward me, touch the door then turn around, or bring your eyes back to the table.” Adding a purposeful movement helps the nonspeaker switch into the cortical (intentional, purposeful) area of the brain and override impulsivity.
Because there is physical discomfort involved with this impulsive movement, it can be difficult to keep your emotions in check. “Ouch” or “That hurts me” are commonly uttered when dealing with hair pulling. But just like saying “No” these cues don’t offer the support that nonspeakers desperately need at the moment.
Cues that include emotion or disappointment such as “It makes me sad when you grab my hair” or “You’re hurting me” can be challenging because they add fuel to the dysregulation fire! The nonspeaker DOES NOT intend to hurt you and cues that indicate that you are upset will likely make them more anxious and therefore more impulsive.
This is a great moment to lean into coaching the body! Cues like “Open your hand” or “Spread your fingers” offer a specific, purposeful motor cue and remove emotion from the situation.
Like hair pulling, an impulsive bite can make it difficult to stay regulated for a parent, caregiver, or practitioner. The types of cues you use to support this should look similar as well. Once a bite occurs, cues like “Open your mouth” or “Relax your jaw” are incredibly effective. If you see a bite coming, you can coach the body to move away from you with cues like “Pull your shoulders back” or “Take a step back”.
Physical dysregulation (an open-handed swing, grabbing someone’s arm, pinching, etc.), is another impulsive movement that can be challenging to work through. This often happens when a nonspeaker needs a way to engage their hands. To offer respectful support we can switch from vague and overused and infantilizing cues like “Gentle hands” or “Hands to yourself” to purposeful motor coaching. This might sound like “Bend your elbow” or “Put your hands on your knees”.
To supercharge your support offer a body engager or other purposeful activity for the hands. Some examples would be clapping out a rhythm or follow-my-model type movements (throw this ball, stomp your feet, touch your elbows, etc.) These activities can help disrupt the impulsive motor and engage purposeful motor.
If you know that physical dysregulation is challenging for a particular individual, create a tool kit just for them! Put together a bag of fidgets and body engagers that you can take with you when you leave the house. It will come in handy if you are in a space where more motor control is required.
Vocalizations can be a tricky loop to break. To offer respectful support, let’s lean into coaching the body AND adding a purposeful movement. Cues like “Squeeze your lips together” or “Close your jaw” are a simple, purposeful shift. To engage the mouth, even more, try having the nonspeaker read a few sentences from a lesson or a list that you’ve created.
If things get really sticky, try breaking a vocalization loop by engaging another part of the body. Prompts like “Reach for your water bottle” or “Get your backpack” engage the cortical brain and switch the focus to another part of the body.
Falling to the Floor (Flopping)
What do we do if we are working with a nonspeaker that falls to the floor? It might be your first instinct to try to motivate the individual to get up. Vague cues like “That’s not being safe”, “It’s not time for a break”, or “First finish your work, and then we’ll get a treat” are sometimes used. As we have already mentioned, these types of prompts don’t adequately support the motor and can sound condescending. And it takes a lot of motor to get your body up out of the floor!
Instead, try using our motor coaching formula! Start with the first body part that needs to move and continue coaching until the nonspeaker is standing. I use the following cues to support this movement:
- “Roll onto your stomach”
- “Use your hands to push your body up
- “Bring your shoulders back”
- “Lift your knee”
- “Push your body up”
If these supports aren’t effective you can add visual and tactile support:
- “Put your feet flat on the floor”
- “Put your hands on top of my hands”
- By offering your hands, you are providing a visual target for where the nonspeaker’s hands should go. You are also providing strong, stable support to assist them.
- “Pull with your arms”
- Make sure that the individual is doing the pulling! If you start to pull them up out of the floor, it is likely that they will pull back against you rather than pull themselves up.
- “Pull, pull, pull”
- Keep coaching until the nonspeaker is on their feet.
We understand that habits are hard to break and there will certainly be times when your own automatic speech falls back into old patterns. When this happens, the most respectful thing you can do is apologize, acknowledge that your automatic speech took over, and try again: “That was an automatic response on my part; what I meant to say is (insert Actionable Verb + Body Part)”.
Kelley Howe is a Spelling to Communicate practitioner, OT, and the owner of Adroit Therapy Services in Knoxville, TN. She loves to help turn impulsive moments into purposeful motor.
Debbie Spengler believes in the power of language & is always listening for ways to level up her support!