Book Review: More Than Words

More Than Words:  Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

by Fern Sussman
Published by The Hanen Centre, 1999

After our first child was diagnosed with autism, I went on the hunt for resources that would explain to me what this diagnosis meant, and how I could help.
I’ve now read dozens of books about autism, but “More Than Words” is the one that was the most helpful to me. It helped me to understand what my child needed, and also what I could do to make a difference in our daily routines.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s some things parents like about this book:

  • In each chapter they divide the information according to “level,” from “own agenda” to “partner stage” with examples for each stage. That way you can read the sections that are relevant for you at that moment, so you don’t get bombarded by too much info at once.
  • It’s easy to read, good visuals, great examples, a lot of great info.
  • Love the visuals, they help to anchor the ideas..
  • It’s extremely practical and hands on.  You assess your child (maybe with the help of a therapist), and then you have lists and examples of what you can do to move your child along in a way that’s fun for both of you.

So what’s it about?  In the introduction, the author explains,

“Your child will learn to communicate when he or she:
  • pays attention to you
  • finds enjoyment in two-way communication
  • copies the things you do and say
  • understands what others say
  • interacts with other people
  • has fun!
  • practices what she learns often
  • has structure, repetition and predictability in his or her life (page vi).”

This book does a really good job of explaining how to get your child to that place.

Chapter 1-2: Understanding Your Child and Setting Goals

The first chapter is about observing and understanding your child, and where they are at right now.  Likes and dislikes lead to an understanding of how a child senses the world, and gives you clues about where to start in helping your child communicate.  The
 chapter also helps you assess how your child already communicates and introduces the stages referred to throughout the book.  For example, an “Own Agenda” communicator does not send any messages directly to you, while a “Partner stage” child is able to enjoy short conversations.

Chapter 2 is about goal setting and basic strategies for moving a child through their stage and onto the next one, with plenty of examples.  Many of the strategies involve exploring surprises or difficulties – for example,  pouring only a small amount of juice into a cup and waiting for your child to indicate that isn’t enough.  Every single playful interaction involves a partner to communicate with.

Chapter 3-5: Follow Your Child’s Lead, Take Turns Together, and Play People Games

These chapters have a lot of common with the DIR/Floortime strategies for the first few levels of development.  How do you draw your child into an interaction with you, and keep it going?  We start with understanding what our child is interested in, join in, and then build on their ideas to stretch their thinking and conversational stamina.  This book offers useful memory aids to help you remember what to do in the moment: OWL for “observe, wait, listen” as you figure out how to join your child; and four I’s to remind you what to do as you join in: “include your child’s interests, interpret as you assume everything your child does sends a message, and respond accordingly, imitate actions and sounds, and intrude – insist on joining in, even if you aren’t welcome at first.”
This section – and the whole book – is full of examples of what you might do with all kinds of children and all kinds of interests.  There are examples of things you can directly teach your child (like “Rules of Conversation” on page 113) and also all kinds of ways you can model communication with your child and draw them into interactions with you.  The cartoon-like illustrations are on every page and make clear what you might do.
Chapter 5 is about people games, and provides lots of examples of how you might play with your child at each stage.

Chapters 6-7: Help Your Child Understand What You Say and Use Visual Helpers

This section is all about what we call “receptive communication” – helping your child expand what he or she can understand.  Again, general strategies and goals for each stage are listed, along with many, many illustrated examples.  A few pitfalls are listed too, like assuming our child understands when they really don’t.
Kids with autism are often visual, and so a whole chapter is devoted to making good use of that strength to increase vocabulary and understanding.

Chapters 8-12: Building Communication in All Kinds of Settings

The book continues the pattern of setting goals, sharing strategies, and offering examples in the daily opportunities presented by family routines, enjoying music, reading, and playing with toys.  The book concludes with a chapter of supporting communication with friends.
This book is big!  It doesn’t seem overwhelming, though, because of the reader-friendly language and the frequent illustrations.  I like to read a whole book at a time, and I did find that trying to THINK about doing all these things with my child at once was too much.  So I would recommend looking at the first two chapters, and trying some strategies for a bit before going on to read the following sections.  Sticking with the sections on your child’s developmental level also narrows things down.  This is a book to buy and refer to every few weeks or months.
All in all, a very useful book for parents of young children with autism!
More Than Words is available for loan in the library at the Children’s Hospital and at the SSCY Centre. The best way to purchase it is online at Hanen also offers a companion DVD, which might be helpful.  From time to time they offer discount codes so it’s useful to follow Hanen on social media and watch for that.  Hanen also published a book for supporting verbal children on the spectrum, called Talkability.

Further Reading:

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