How to build communication skills with children with autism
We are researchers who coach parents to communicate with children with disabilities.
Here are five strategies families can use to help children with autism spectrum disorder build their communication skills, along with examples of how to use them.
Autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children nationwide.
1. Motivate the child to communicate
Create opportunities for your child to practice communication skills. Show your child one of their favorite items and encourage your child to ask for it. Children are more likely to be engaged and communicate when activities are based on their interests. Compliment your child when they communicate. For instance, say “that’s a good question!” or “good job asking me for help!”
Delicia, whose 3-year-old child, Pacho, has minimal verbal skills, motivates her child to speak by placing a cookie in a jar. Pacho can see the cookie but he cannot get it by himself. He has to ask for it. After Delicia teaches him how to ask for it, she will give him the cookie and praise him by saying “Good job telling me.”
2. Model communication skills
Model communication skills by speaking, using gestures and facial expressions. Your child will imitate them. While modeling, sit near your child and respond to the child’s imitation with praise for using the new skill.
Pacho cannot open the cookie jar, so he hands the jar to Delicia. Delicia models by saying “Cookies, please” or “Open, please.”
For children with autism spectrum disorder with nonverbal communication or who have complex communication needs, consider using a tool, called an augmentative and alternative communication device, to supplement their speech.
This kind of communication can be low-tech, such as exchanging pictures to communicate. Or, it can be as high-tech as a communication app on a tablet.
Archie, a 10-year-old with autism spectrum disorder who cannot yet speak, screams when asked to eat vegetables. His father places the vegetables on his dish and his mother models pressing an icon on an app to say, “No, thank you,” and waiting for his response. The mother also says “No, thank you” to give him a verbal model and waits for his response.
3. Prompt the child to use new communication skills
Prompt new communication skills by using verbal, visual or physical guidance.
Fabiana, Archie’s mom, physically prompts him to use the communication device by holding his hand to press the “No, thank you” icon on his app. Then, Fabiana takes away the vegetables and immediately offers something he likes.
4. Allow the child to communicate independently
Slowly remove the prompts so children don’t become dependent on them. You can do this by waiting one or two seconds before using a prompt in order to give the child an opportunity to communicate independently.
After Pacho requests cookies several times, Delicia waits for one second before using modeling or prompting strategies. Delicia will periodically increase the time delay by one or two seconds until finding a delay that encourages independent responding.
Archie says “No, thank you,” with the app when Fabiana prompts him, so she starts waiting for one second before using modeling or prompting. Fabiana will increase the time delay by one or two seconds each day.
5. Expand and generalize to other people, settings and activities
Using modeling and prompting strategies to add new words to phrases the children have already mastered.
When Pacho can independently asks for cookies by saying “Cookies, please” several times, Delicia teaches him a new word by adding “Want cookies, please.”
When Archie can independently use the communication app to say “No, thank you,” several times, Fabiana teaches him a new word by adding “No carrot, thank you.”
Use these strategies during your children’s everyday activities, such as brushing their teeth, having lunch, going to the park or riding in a car.
It is essential to use these strategies with different people and in different settings consistently over time.