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Cold Cereal, Cake, and the Layers of Functional Communication

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I’m thankful each day that Connor is able to say “I love you, mommy”.  I never take that for granted because I know that there are so many others that would give anything to hear those words.  Or to hear any words.

For all intents and purposes, Connor has functional communication.  He can ask for something he wants, answer questions with varying degrees of accuracy, and even tell jokes.  God, the jokes…  His first “real” joke just happened this weekend.  I say “real” because it was the first one that totally made sense, rather than the usual “Knock knock.  Who’s there?  Fart.  Fart who?  I just farted in your face, bwahahahaha!”  We were playing air hockey, and he sunk the puck in my goal and said, “Oh yeah, Santa went DOOOOWN the chimney!  How you like me now?”

I laughed my ass off.  It made sense, it was a play on words that fit with what just happened.  It was perfect.

But that doesn’t mean that he has mastered functional communication.  Because he is highly verbal and because he is “high functioning”, people don’t often understand or realize that his communication is still impaired, especially at school.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, functional communication is defined as follows:

Functional communication skills are forms of behavior that express needs, wants, feelings, and preferences that others can understand. When individuals learn functional communication skills, they are able to express themselves without resorting to problem behavior or experiencing communication breakdown.

It’s a broad definition.  So although someone may seem as though they can communicate quite well, the real test is whether they can “express themselves without resorting to problem behavior…”

The reason I have functional communication on my mind has everything to do with cereal.

Yes.  Cereal.

See, the other morning I called Connor out to breakfast.  As I made my way toward the shower, he started yelling “but I don’t WANT cereal!  Why do I have to have CEREAL!?”

“Great, more whining and complaining,” I thought.

“But you like Oatmeal Squares, you eat it all the time,” I said.

His response left me thinking about the damn cereal all day.  He said, “the cold milk gives me goosebumps.”

He’s never said that before.  It made sense to me now.  It was a cold day, and having cold milk in his cereal made him feel more cold.  It dysregulated him.  Normally, he would have just whined about not wanting it, and asked for other things.  And normally I would have assumed he was being controlling and difficult.

Because he added the sentence about the cold milk, his statement about not wanting cereal became functional.

This was a breakthrough, and I complimented him on explaining the problem to me.  Since we were running late, I asked if he could manage the cereal this one time, and the next day I would make sure he had something warm to eat.  He happily agreed.  Because of that extra piece of communication, we were able to negotiate and work out a solution together.

All that day I thought about the cereal, and wondered how many times I’d dismissed his behavior as “controlling” or “whiny”, when it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t able to communicate effectively.

I remembered what I used to know, once upon a time.  Functional communication involves many layers and subtleties that are hard for our kids to master.  It means we have to ask more questions, whenever possible.  It means that when our kids are whining or acting up, we should assume there is something going on that they haven’t been able to communicate to us.

It helps to think of the layers of functional communication by comparing two statements.  Consider the first statement below:

“I like the cake, it’s good.”

In contrast, here’s another description of cake, by Maria del Mar Sacasa, at Serious Eats:

“…softened butter is whipped with an egg yolk and confectioners’ sugar, then spread generously between the layers. The result: a light, crisp, chewy meringue with inexplicably creamy, lightly sweetened swirls of butter.”

The first statement conveys the very basics, while the second statement offers a detailed description that leaves the mouth watering.  It is the details that our kids struggle with, that often leads to tantrums, full-blown meltdowns, or simple misunderstandings.

From now on, whenever I encounter whining or tantrums, I will remember the cold cereal.  I will try my hardest to help facilitate more in-depth communication, and stop chalking it up to just “bad behavior.”  I will help him to describe the cake in all its wondrous detail.

And tomorrow, we will have pancakes for breakfast.


About Flannery

Kid, husband, dogs, my mother, full-time job, maximum stress, minimal relaxation...sooner or later I had to vent. AND we moved from California to Texas. I could start a whole other blog about that.

16 responses »

  1. This post is a functional communication to me! We have the same issue over here. On rare occasions, I get the why for the reaction but overall, not so much. And when that’s the daily grind, I get annoyed instead of always remembering there is more to it. Thanks for the reminder and – wow! Pancakes! Did I tell you I get goosebumps too? Cuz you can come over anytime. Just saying…

  2. This speaks to me too while wants and needs and sometimes even thoughts are coming through the chewy creamy filling is still not there and something is amiss…the meat on the bones…whatever…something to work on still.

  3. *wipes away tears* Absolutely amazing. I love those little things. You know, the things that other people would overlook and not think twice about.

  4. OMGosh! Maybe THIS is what’s happening to my son! I have an older child with (mild) Aspergers (aka, you might just think she’s a little off, lol) and I wouldn’t say that that is what my son has, but SOMETHING is wrong with that child! It started in Kindergarten, when he went from my mild mannered, loving boy to this monster that could explode any minute! We’ve taken him to a therapist for Anger Management, but um, it has only helped a little. I have honestly thought of him as my Pain in the ass, which probably affects how I deal with him. But maybe, he’s not being bad, maybe I need to be more patient and ask more questions. Thank you for enlightening me!

  5. I kinda love the cold milk explanation, and the breakthrough!

  6. That is amazing that Connor was able to communicate that to you! Way to go!

  7. Wow! I am earmarking this one for the next time I need to explain functional speech!! Love the breakthrough! Hope Connor enjoyed his pancakes. 🙂

  8. Love this! My son makes me warm up his yogurts because they are too cold but he’s never been able to express why the cold bothers him. Yay for communication breakthroughs!

  9. I have had similar experiences ….and thought to myself to remember such and such…so that I can ‘help facilitate more in-depth communication’ next times…and it has worked, but of course sometimes routine and busy life happens and I forget…then the chocking it up to tantrums or misbehaviours happens… So anyways, I guess what I want to say…is THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE REMINDER !

    That was a very nice experience to share :)) It got right to my soul this morning 😉 And I will post a note in my fridge that will read “COLD CEREAL” 😉 as a reminder 😉

  10. Love that explanation! I am just starting to understand how to have an effective conversation with my 8 year old daughter who was diagnosed with Aspergers last year. I also have thought of her as stubborn, bossy and controlling for years and years and have had untold number of fights with her about what she wants to do as opposed to what I think she ought to do. Some of them (crossing the road) I insist HAVE to be done my way, but I ma increasingly learning more about AS and how it means she experiences and talks about the world in different ways to me.
    Different, not wrong. I AM learning – slowly but surely.

  11. What a great explanation of functional communication! EVERY parent can take a lesson from this. And ^5 to you AND Connor!

  12. Interesting post to read…. from a non verbal perspective, it can be very difficult to *get* what my child is communicating…. although his “NO” is very adamant! 😀

  13. Oh Flannery. Oh my. What a beautiful, beautiful way to have this very important discussion. Cold cereal.
    Our kids. They are so amazing. And you, my friend, are such an incredible mom, for being so willing to listen to your child on a higher plane. He is one lucky kiddo to have you.

  14. I am shaking my head in total agreement to your experience . Our house is crazy because both me and my son have trouble communicating what we want a lot. My son likes to repeat things from tv instead of making up his own words so sometimes I really struggle to understand what he is trying to say. My doctors say the reason I have finding words is because of ADD and fibromyalgia but I think I am on the autism spectrum too. I have sure learned to be more patient since he was born but it’s still a struggle. My bf thinks he’s a comedian so he talks gibberish too. It’s a wonder I don’t get more headaches from living with both of them. I have major sensory issues so I get overwhelmed really easy. Our house is pretty crazy!
    Your blog is great because I can totally relate to a lot of your experiences.


  15. Pingback: Thanks for Understanding, Dear. | The Cranky Giraffe

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