When it comes to communicating with some children with special needs, it can be like dancing in the dark in high heels in a too-tight skirt with hardly any music playing, Ann Kaiser said Friday.

Kaiser, a child psychologist who is a professor in Vanderbilt University’s special education department and part of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, spoke during Western Kentucky University’s Suzanne Vitale Clinical Education Complex’s Special Needs Summit.

“Typical kids give clues,” she said. Children with special needs “don’t give us those cues. They’re harder to read. It takes them longer to learn. It’s a dance between the mother and child.”

Kaiser, who has a sibling with autism, talked to students, parents and professionals about “Making Meaningful Differences in Children’s Communication Outcomes.”

“There are simple, practical ways parents can teach them how to talk,” she said. “Their behavior is telling us a lot of things. We can help them by giving them words they’re already communicating.”

A lot of studies show that when therapy involves parents, the kids do better, Kaiser said.

“You’re not handing off responsibility to a speech therapist or teacher. You are there from the beginning. They get a little fine-tuning and coaching to make that support work,” she said. “It’s easier to learn languages when there is a relationship with that person. That role of parents is essential in kids learning.

“You’ve got to have a partner to talk to. Parents are partners first and teachers second,” she said. “That caring relationship is so important.”

Parents are often riveted when listening for a child’s first word. That same support and care may be needed for some children with Down syndrome and autism, Kaiser said.

“It may take support and a long time,” she said.

All kids communicate, whether it’s the way they look and act or the way they talk, Kaiser said.

“Some are more efficient communicators than others,” she said. “Even if the kid doesn’t talk early it doesn’t mean we can’t have positive outcomes.”

Kaiser showed videos of therapists helping children with such activities as stacking blocks, kicking balls and playing with other toys as well as using electronic devices to form words.

“It’s getting that social part going and putting language on top of that. It’s about how to get your child interested,” she said. “Most of this is nonverbal and tuning in to what the kid is saying. It’s trying to create that dance back and forth.”

Brenda Haskins of Butler County was at the summit to get help for her 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

“I wanted to find out more about it and what is available in the community to help her so she will be able to do more in her life,” she said. “It’s hard for her to meet new people.”

Haskins found other people who understand what she is going through.

“There’s more that have the same type of autism,” she said. “Not all her things are based on being a teenager. A lot is based on her disability.”

— Follow features reporter Alyssa Harvey on Twitter at twitter.com/bgdnfeatures or visit bgdailynews.com.

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