I don’t know those words.

Language Barrier

This week has been full of friendly reminders of just how frustrating communication deficits can be. Although I may be acquainted with working in special education communities, working in a tech-savvy community, of which I am not traditionally a member, has been a challenge. Sure, I understand some of the terms used and I can even include a few in conversation, but it doesn’t mean I truly understand the intended meaning. Contacting tech support, when I’ve been notified that my email has been out of commission for three days (It’s fixed now.) is an exercise in frustration on both ends of the line. Questions that I cannot fully comprehend are asked and responses like, “I clicked the mail icon-thingy” are the only information I am capable of providing in return. As in, “I don’t know what the terms in your question mean. I hope you understand my terribly unclear response.”

Kind of makes you recognize why aggression is so often related to communication challenges.

A Simple Response

One of my favorite responses to individuals I work with is, “I don’t know those words. Can you tell me another way?” It’s a lengthy response and not appropriate for everyone, to be sure, but for some individuals I know, it works. It’s not that you aren’t speaking clearly. It’s not “use your words.” It is, in fact, that you are telling me something important/crucial/wonderful and I am the unprepared one who just doesn’t get it.

I have one child I know who is amazing with rephrasing communicative attempts. We’ve gone from having conversations (the little one in question is under the age of 5), to having minimal language, to this almost-game of sorts. The child shares information. I fail to understand. She uses as many synonyms (usually non-traditional) as possible and I try to put the meaning together, guessing as we go. She becomes very excited for me when I finally put the puzzle together and, often, we can then do the very activity she requested/described. It minimizes frustration for both of us, and builds a naturalistic interaction with multiple exchanges (aka: social reciprocity).


A literature review on teaching these social reciprocity skills to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, highlighted some key features of successful intervention programs. Although not evidence-based practices, features identified as ‘promising teaching strategies’ include:

  • Taking place in a fun environment
  • Using natural reinforcers for social interactions
  • Using modeling and role-play
  • Making teaching structured and predictable
  • Providing natural opportunities to practice skills

(Williams White, Keonig, & Scahill, 2007)

Although it certainly isn’t a large-scale, formal intervention. I would say that my brief, standard response to an unclear communication attempt meets the majority of these identified promising practices. It’s naturalistic and takes place in an interactive environment, using natural reinforcers as possible. I get to model an appropriate response to being confused and the other individual gets to practice responding to someone who is failing to understand without biting/hitting/screaming/crying. And my response is always the same, making it a predictable interaction.

There is Applied Verbal Behavior with mand training. There are fabulous Speech Language Pathologists with articulation objectives. There are social skills groups with structured practice. There are a million other things that are so often necessary to have a child have long-term, communication and language success. But, in addition to all of that, using one simple phrase can sometimes prompt someone to try again and offer real-world practice with communication attempts.

What are some simple strategies you use to prompt appropriate communication?

Also, for anyone interested, the reference is below but the entire article can be downloaded, for free, as a pdf file here.


Williams White, S., Keonig, K., & Scahill, L. (2007). Social skills development in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A review of the intervention research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1858-1868.

Category(s): Communication

One Response to I don’t know those words.

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