Why do all of the therapists at SDOT talk the same?

At our clinic, we often hear the question, “Why do all of the therapists at SDOT sound the same when you talk?” While it’s true that people begin to sound similar to those we spend our time with, the real reason goes much deeper! It’s because we do our best to use a treatment strategy called Declarative Language, and we highly recommend that you try it too! This strategy is a core pillar of Relational Development Intervention, and you can read more about it in a book called Declarative Language Handbook by Linda K. Murphy, MS CCC-SLP. In this book, Linda K. Murphy provides parents and therapists with a pathway to “understand the mindset of struggling learners so that they can communicate with patience, create meaningful exchanges, and help the child feel competent, calm, and confident!” 

 Our therapists do our best to use this strategy with every child we treat because it promotes:

  • More independent problem-solving
  • Social inferencing skills
  • Increased functional independence
  • Self-confidence
  • Reciprocal interactions and participation in conversation

Before we understand why using this strategy can be so life-changing for so many children, let’s go back to grammar school to understand what exactly “declarative language” means. A declarative sentence is a sentence that simply provides information by making a statement. We can compare this with imperative language, which is a sentence that gives a direction or asks a question. The most important difference to understand here is that an imperative sentence requires a response from the listener (in the form of an action or an answer to a question), while a declarative sentence simply provides the listener with information. For example:

Imperative: “Put your shoes on.”


Declarative: “I’m putting my shoes on so that I can go outside.”

 So how exactly does this tiny shift in language make such a big impact? In her book, Linda K. Murphy cites research findings that less than 1% of the language we use with individuals with Autism is declarative. This means that constantly, throughout the day, we use imperative language in the form of directions and questions to facilitate a child’s movement through tasks. We use imperatives to speed along a child’s movement, help them to participate, and encourage them to use their skills. So, if we are always setting up our children in the role of being a responder, how will they learn to initiate, problem solve on their own without our directives, or confidently participate in new experiences?

 By shifting our language from imperative to declarative, we can decrease the amount of cuing we give while teaching problem solving and social inferencing! By using declarative language, we can support a child’s development and independent skills in: 

  • Visual Referencing: Declarative language helps teach a child to use what they can see to gather information they may need to participate or problem solve. For example, you might direct your child’s gaze toward information they may need to make a smart guess about how to put a puzzle together: “I see that this puzzle piece is round, and this part is pointy.”
  • Episodic Memory: Declarative language can help a child learn to access their episodic memory in order to problem solve! Episodic memory is vital to social competence, because future social experiences require us to reference and use things we’ve learned in past experiences. For example, you might use the sentence starter: “I remember the last time we played this game we tried it a different way.”
  • Thinking in Alternatives and Possibilities: A very important component of problem solving is being able to think in terms of alternatives and possibilities! Learning to think this way allows for more flexible thinking and supports children who are rigid in their thought processes. Declarative language can support this skill by providing a model and pointing out alternative options when a problem arises.  For example, you might verbally narrate your own thought processes aloud as a model for your child: “Hm, we are out of bread. I’m trying to decide if I should go to the store to get more, or use tortillas for our peanut butter and jelly today instead.”
  • Appreciating Different Opinions: Declarative language can be used to model how opinions can be different and that it is ok for others to have different thoughts and ideas than their own! Try simply narrating your own thoughts and identifying with a simple statement when somebody else has a different thought than you did.
  • Making Mistakes is OK: Using declarative statements can be a great way to model your own thought process when you make a mistake.

 Quick tips to use declarative language: 

  1. Pacing is very important! Give lots of wait time to allow your child to process the information you provide. Count to 10 before you speak again!
  2. Try, try again. If your first declarative statement goes by, and you wait 10 seconds and nothing happens, rather than reverting back to a command or question, try adding a second or third declarative statement.
  3. Use cognitive verbs such as “I think… I wonder… I remember… I know… I imagine… I wish…”
  4. Use words that emphasize uncertainty and possibility, such as “Maybe… Possibly… Perhaps… Sometimes…”
  5. Use words that describe your feelings and senses, such as “I smell… I see… I hear… I feel…”