Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Side Notes: Symbolic Communication and Special Needs Children

I am currently taking a music philosophy and research class where we are discussing language as it relates to research methods. The question was asked: Are vocabulary, grammar, signs, or symbols important for communication? Can communication exist if the sender transmits in one symbolic form and the receiver is not familiar with the form? How would you answer the question? My initial thoughts on the matter are as follows:

I think that vocabulary, signs and gestures are very important in visual and aural communication. I think grammar may be slightly less important based on my experience with speaking other languages. When I was in
Russia, for example, my grammar was often quite poor, but the native speakers usually did not have a problem filling in the meaning of what I was trying to say. They frequently corrected my grammar to help me learn, but I never insulted anyone or got into an argument by accidentally saying something wrong!

Vocabulary, signs and gestures are very important to communication as evidenced by the lack of meaningful communication with kids with disabilities, especially autism and Down Syndrome. I often wonder if children with autism are distracted by the word, picture of the word, gesture or paired object and therefore do not attach the sender's intended meaning to the word. For example, if we are trying to teach the labeling of objects, the child with autism might be too distracted by the details on a toy car and completely miss the association with the word, “car.” He may only want to hold the car, but may scream or hit himself and not even reach out for the car in a gesture to communicate his wants. In this example the two communicators are operating in very different realms of communication and may just as well be speaking Chinese and Spanish to each other. Communication will be very difficult without a common agreement on vocabulary, signs and gestures.

Sometimes we may overcome differences in vocabulary if there is an underlying commonality. My daughter is learning French at home since my wife exclusively communicates with her in French. Sometimes I think my daughter understands instructions in French better than in English! I think in some ways, however, she is able to respond to communication in either language based on vocal inflections and gesture to compensate for her lack of vocabulary in one language or the other.

I think that if communication is the goal, then it should be approached globally by engaging a communication partner in as many different modes of communication as possible. This is particularly true when working with children with disabilities. Hopefully, they will be able to understand the communication on some level when provided with multiple avenues to listen and respond. The ramifications for this conclusion might point to the use of multiple forms of instruction for any given material. When I conduct music therapy groups I often provide visual, spoken, sung and gesture cues for most instructions. I am often most interested in the my message being understood rather than how it is understood. I have observed that most teachers are naturals at communicating with multiple modalities, but it is good to examine our method of delivery every now and then.

What do you think?

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