Communication is more than simply talking. It involves a speaker and a listener that can understand each other. While talking is what we may think of most often when it comes to communication, other ways we communicate include facial expressions and gestures. Early communication is how we teach young children to interact with people around them so they can share what they need or want.
As your child grows up, they often learn to develop language. Language is important for many reasons. With language, you can ask for exactly what you want, talk about your surroundings, play with a friend, ask for what you want or need faster when you are clearly understood, and interact with anyone who uses the same language.
Learning language includes teaching new words, learning the names of items and activities, and understanding that words are important to be able to access fun things. Language is a complex skill, and it may be overwhelming to know where or how to start the process.
Below are some tips you can use to build early communication skills with your child with autism:
Patience is important when it comes to teaching your child how to communicate. When you are teaching your child new words, they will be starting to move their mouth and tongue to form sounds, and some of those movements will be new to them. Try breaking down the word into smaller parts, such as sounds and syllables. For example, if you are trying to help them say the word “dog,” you could break up the sounds into “Duh-Ogg.”
Be patient when you expect them to respond back to you in different situations, like when you ask them a question or if you want them to repeat something back to you. Giving them a moment or two to understand what is being asked of them before asking again can help them process new information and apply the skills they are learning from their care team and at home. Being patient will also allow for the learning time with your child to be comfortable and relaxed, which can aid their learning.
Ever notice how you are more willing to do something when it is accompanied by something you enjoy? Your child may be the same way! One of the best times to teach your child new words is during playtime. Try using a preferred activity or their favorite toys to help them learn new words by calling items by their names and narrating what they are doing.
You can also try teaching new words and phrases by narrating how they are playing or what they have.
For example, you could teach them different kinds of words by being descriptive:
In addition to narrating what your child is doing during play, try being mindful of the length of your own sentences. Using short, clear phrases can help identify the most important words in your sentence that you want them to understand. It’s alright to use incomplete sentences at this stage while they are still learning and developing. As your child learns more and more words, you can start teaching sentences.
Some examples include:
Compared to longer sentences such as, “Show me which one of the shapes is the circle,” you can see how shorter phrases are easier to understand, especially for an early learner. As your child starts to learn and respond to these short phrases, you can start expanding and adding new words to teach. “Come here” becomes “Come here, please,” and eventually becomes “Can you come over here, please?” as your child’s communication develops.
According to data published by the National Library of Medicine, approximately 25-30% of children with autism are nonverbal. Nonverbal means that the child may have limited vocal language, meaning that may only be able to say a handful of words or may not be able to speak at all. If your child doesn’t say many words, look for what they are able to communicate nonverbally: can they nod yes or no? Can they point to something they want? Acknowledge and respond to their non-verbal communication.
Other suggestions to use in your home include sign language or picture flashcards. If your child has some motor skills, such as good control over their hands and finger muscles, some great starter signs include “eat,” “drink,” “want,” and “all done.”
If you feel that sign language may be difficult for your child or your family, you can try picture flashcards. Keep picture cards of items or activities that your child regularly asks for or likes in a place where they can easily be accessed. When they want to communicate with you, you can work on teaching them to hand you the picture card that displays what they want.
Some schools may also give children with autism an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device. In many cases, it is an iPad with a speaking app, and the student can press the button for what they want, after which the device speaks out for them. You can partner with your child’s school and ask if these devices are accessible from them.
While a large part of early language is listening and starting to identify actions and objects, it is important to remember that we need to give them lots of opportunities to have them communicate. If you regularly anticipate your child’s needs by giving them what they want without them asking, they may start to learn that they don’t have to ask. An easy way to start giving them opportunities to communicate is to give them choices: Do you want the red shirt today, or the blue shirt? Do you want apple juice or grape juice?
Another way to encourage language is to keep items that they want slightly out of reach. If their toy is on a shelf and they can’t reach it, you can teach them to ask for it. This is also a great way to build up communication. For example, your child might go from pointing to saying the name of the toy, to asking for it in a full sentence. If you’re giving plenty of opportunities for them to practice, they will learn that using their words will help them get exactly what they want.
Lastly, it is important to be consistent. If their favorite activity is playing on their iPad, aim to have them always communicate “iPad” when they want it and build a contingency. A contingency means one thing is dependent on the other (in our example here, the child getting to play on the iPad is dependent, or contingent, on them saying “iPad”).
If the child gets their iPad every time they cry, the contingency is crying to get it instead of using words. Try selecting one or two things they reliably want or use every day to start, and after they get really good at asking for a couple of things, you can work on asking for more items.
Teaching communication skills to your child with autism can come with its ups and downs as you learn their preferred methods of communicating. However, by trying the tips above and by partnering with your child’s care team, you can help your child thrive.