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Speech, Language and the Art of Origami

By the time Josephine Ko’s younger son was 2 years old, he still had no speech, and she’d tried everything – speech therapy, coloring and drawing books, watching videos together – and she was running out of ideas.

It was around this time that she’d also begun volunteering at her older son’s elementary school helping out during origami class and was regularly practicing her origami at home to build her skills. She noticed that her younger son was interested in the colorful origami paper, and Ko started making him origami animals – butterflies, elephants, pigs, and whatever else he liked – but she insisted that he speak the name of the origami shape that he wanted her to make. Ko says, “I would say to my son, ‘If you say it, I will make it,’ and I would show him a shape in a book, and when he would say the name, I would make it for him.”

Ko adds, “In order for this to work, I had to be able to make all kinds of different shapes, so while both my sons were at school, I practiced making origami and became an ‘origami’ freak.’ I made one shape 100 times to teach my son in a fun way. The very first words he said were cup and pig – one syllable words.”

By the time her son was 3, he was saying about five words, and one year later, he had developed dramatically, and was saying three word sentences. By the age of 6, he was talking nonstop, attending kindergarten at a magnet school and asking questions all the time.

“You need to find the child’s interest, whatever it is, and tap into it, to develop their skills,” shares Ko.

In third grade, Ko’s son’s class was given the assignment of being teacher for the day, and each student had to teach class for 40 minutes on a topic of their interest. Ko’s son prepared handouts for the class on how to make origami sailboats, paper airplanes and boxes, and then taught them how to make these three shapes.

Now in junior high, Ko says that her son is doing great. “He is getting straight A’s and is fully included in a magnet school.” Although her son isn’t as interested in origami as he used to be, he still dabbles in making origami shapes when he has some downtime. Having loved drumming since he was little, which Ko says has helped turn meaningless behavior into meaningful behavior, he is also a percussionist for a band.

Every child has something they are interested in – numbers, letters, water, colors, etc. – and while it can be harder in children with autism and without speech, to figure out what that is, once you find it, this interest can become your greatest asset in reaching out to that child to help them develop their skills. For Josephine Ko and her son, this interest was colored paper, and through the art of origami, she was able to help her son develop his speech and language.