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Can’t vs Won’t – Ideas from my Speech Therapist

December 6, 2012


One thing that we have struggled with that seems to be a re- occurrence with Rett is you take him in some place to be tested for whatever, they ask him questions on content I KNOW he knows… and he won’t answer so its marked wrong.  A lot of the time this is good as far as getting services. Its always better for your kid to look worse then they are.  And even though I know that, it always frustrates me to no end. Everyone likes their child to do well and be seen in a good light.  So what exactly IS this phenomenon that keeps happening? Its the can’t vs won’t experience.


This is very common with autistic children.  When we first took Rett in our doctor said, If you sat there and thought ‘If she only had asked the question this way, he would have gotten it right’, that’s autism.  The inability to generalize answers and questions is a problem for autistic children sometimes.  So if you find yourself ALWAYS asking if he wants a drink a certain way (ie. Are you ready for your sippy?) and finding your child isn’t responding to an unfamiliar adults more typical request (Are you ready for a drink? Do you want a drink? Are you thirsty?) then YOU need to mix it up.  Setting your child up for success is comfortable, it feels good. Sometimes when you have waited forever to get any sort of response it feels strange asking in a new way where you KNOW they probably won’t know what you’re talking about, but that’s how the world works! Nobody knows your child like you, but they will have to get things from other people.


Another problem Rett has is being asked too many things in a row with no reward. ABA works to increase his tolerance for the amount and difficulty of demands placed on him.  A demand is basically any time you expect something from the child and it probably isn’t his first choice to do that.  So asking him a color, what his name is, to hold up 2 fingers, point to the bunny, touch his nose, all of those are demands.   For a child with autism sometimes going into their brain, finding the info and producing the result you want is very difficult.  You will often see crying or tantrums to try to get out of ‘work’. Its not that the child CAN’T do these things.  The child won’t.  How do you help them increase their tolerance so they perform better at school?


Nobody wants their child being taught things they already know. But if your child is unwilling to produce results for a teacher or stranger, its the same as not knowing it to some extent.   Here is what I’ve seen from our own speech therapist that can help you increase the amount and difficulty of demands your child is willing to handle.


First she takes a board game or any type of child’s game.  We used this one:  Last session

For this specific game, there are multiple colors of swords that you and your child will stick into the holes of the wooden barrel.  Have your child choose what color they want to be.   Then have them choose what color you will be.

Previously, get some flash cards or pictures that you can use to work on the target skills with your child.  For example, Rett is currently working on verbs with noun combinations.  So the picture cards Amanda used had people doing things like water the flowers, swimming in the pool, running on the side walk, etc.

Then get some flash cards with information that you feel your child knows and is VERY familiar with. Like animals, colors, etc.  Not something you are working on but mastered skills.

At first, you will want to start off with an easy card (color blue) and 2 difficult cards.   If your child can’t describe what is in the content you are working on, model the correct answer and have them respond. Give lots of praise.  Then give them the sword to put in. This is a great time to work on my turn (or have your child say Rett’s turn! if they aren’t to pronouns yet). Then you go, have your child say ‘Your turn!’ or ‘Mommy’s turn!’ Place yours in. Then go back to content.  After a few questions with 1 easy and 2 difficult, try 1 easy, 2 difficult, 1 easy. Then try 1 easy, 3 difficult, 2 easy.   Try to build up the amount of answers your child gives before they get to put in their sword.   Easy cards give them the feeling of success and pride for themselves. It also gives you a chance to lavish them with praise instead of correcting, correcting, correcting.  Try mixing up 1 easy, 1 hard, 1 easy, 1 hard if your child is very reluctant to engage.

Even neuro typical kids can use this to get through home work, flash cards, etc.  Breaking up the demands with rewards by doing something enjoyable together can benefit any family who hates homework time!


Our speech path uses this with ALL sorts of games. And she doesn’t necessarily make Rett play correctly.  She lets him experience the game in a way HE feels is fun. Especially if its one above his age level.  But he has to take turns and he can only place 1 (ok sometimes she lets him do 2) at a time.


I hope some people can benefit from the lessons I pick up from our speech path. She really is wonderful and inventive on working with kiddos!

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