Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Red Lipstick

Way back in 1968, the student in Abnormal Psychology class was working on an on-going project to get a 19 year old institutionalized autistic female to say a specified sound. The technique used was to hold an M & M close to his mouth to get her attention, say the sound, and when she said it, give her the candy. Repeat throughout the session. The young woman had others doing the same thing. The class never got to learn whether she could ever speak on her own.

One thing that we have known about autistic children for a long time is that they frequently have disordered/disrupted sensation/perception. Some clinicians have used this to help people with autism.

It is now 2010. Methods for getting autistic children to look at a mouth have not changed much. It is especially difficult for young children. There has actually been research with two to four year old children that found (using sophisticated equipment) that focusing on the mouth is diagnostic. Regardless of age, children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder spent significantly less time looking at the mouth than typically developing children (Chawarska and Shic, 2009). When a person considers that the research is basically an expansion on the theme of figure ground perception, a perceptive person can consider ways to enhance the facial features so that they may stand out from ground. Doing this can, and should help autistic children learn.

I recently began mentioning the use of red lipstick by parents and therapists to acquire and maintain the attention of autistic children on the mouth for the purpose of conducting speech therapy. A parent of a set of autistic children (not from twin or other multiple births) reacted to my suggestion with astonishment because she does not ordinarily wear lipstick. She bought some bright red lipstick on a whim, applied it, and was amazed at how much attention her children were paying to her mouth. Her children ranged in age from 8 years old to 13 years old. One child was a girl, and the others were boys.

There is a shortcoming with red lipstick. Male therapists are unlikely to use it. Fathers working with their children are unlikely to use it. There are two possible solutions. Men can apply the lipstick and wear it only during therapy. That is an easy solution, but one that is unlikely to sit well with many of them.

The second solution would involve the purchase of a small theatrical moustache that can be worn multiple times on the upper lip. The hair should be dyed the same shade of red as lipstick. Men can use this to draw their child's/client's attention to the mouth. As much as many men are loath to wear red lipstick under any circumstances, women are likely to reject the option of wearing a bright red colored theatrical moustache on their upper lip. However, when a woman does not want to wear red lipstick, the bright red theatrical moustache can be an option for them.

A secondary aspect of speech therapy can involve having the child look in the mirror. An autistic child is unlikely to look at themselves AND their mouth to practice speaking. When the child does not have a sensory sensitivity to wearing lipstick, it may be possible to apply bright red lipstick to them to wear during speech practice in front of a mirror. Of course, under the same awareness of possible sensory sensitivity, they could also wear a bright red colored moustache during practice sessions. Perhaps having the parent use either option during speech practice would make the use of the same option on them in front of mirror more acceptable.

It would be excellent to get some feedback on the use of red lipstick. Please respond with comments.


Chawarska, K. & Shic, F. (2009). Looking but not seeing: Atypical visual scanning and recognition of faces in 2 and 4-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 1663-1672.

1 comment:

Carly said...

You posted this years ago... but I couldn't agree more. I am a speech pathologist and I wear red lipstick. I did not learn this in school, nor through work experience, I learned this being a Mom. My son was born with Visual Maturation Delay. I dyed my blonde hair brown, wore dark eye make-up, and always red or orange lipstick. It is now my default... I swear by it. I wear my red lipstick everyday and often paint my nails in crazy color - or color block them. My father told me, I would never make money with my fashion sense but I could make money with my desire to help others... Look at me now, I can do both! ;)