Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have trouble with communication skills such as understanding and interpreting language. Speech therapy is designed to improve all areas of communication in your child. It is thought that, the earlier that your child receives it, the greater the chances of improving his/her communication skills.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when you have a child diagnosed with ASD can be communication. Speech therapy helps build your child’s expressive and receptive language skills to help him/her communicate effectively. This includes learning to functionally use words that he/she learns, express him/herself with spoken language or gestures, and learning when and how to communicate in a socially acceptable or appropriate way.
This article will cover a list of easy and fun speech therapy exercises that you can do at home with your child to help improve his/her communication skills in different settings. We will also touch base on the need for speech therapy and the way it works for some autistic children.
The need for speech therapy
There are a number of reasons why some children with autism need speech therapy. According to studies found with the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that roughly 25-50% of children diagnosed with ASD are nonverbal or have difficulties communicating with others.
Speech therapy is used for more than just difficulties communicating. It can also help with fine motor and cognitive skills. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “parent involvement plays a critical role in your child’s communication development.”
These exercises might help with the following issues that your child may have:
Weak oral muscles
Trouble understanding the meaning of words, and the appropriate way to use them
Lack of eye contact, or the ability to gesture or communicate nonverbally
The inability to socially interact with others
Exercises to try at home
This activity teaches interacting with others, using gestures and eye contact, helps with functional communication, and helps the development of vocabulary. The exercise encourages your child to point to what he/she wants and associate with its name.
Examples of how to offer choices:
At mealtime take 2-3 of your child’s favorite foods and let your child choose what he/she would like to eat. If it’s hot dogs and chicken nuggets ask your child while pointing to the item: “Do you want hotdogs or chicken nuggets?”
When you are dressing your child in the morning let your child pick what color socks to wear. Again hold up two choices and point to each option as you are asking “Do you want to wear this color or that color?”
The goal of the exercise is to get your child to point to the item or verbally select the preferred item.
Teaching essential words
Essential words that can be used in multiple situations are essential in helping children with ASD communicate. The most common words and signs taught in speech therapy include “more”, “open”, “done”, and “help”. If your child is nonverbal or has a limited vocabulary, he/she can express basic needs and wants by using the essential words.
In the home, you can start with the word more, and use it at mealtimes. Serve your child a small portion of food at mealtimes, and when he/she has finished eating what is on his/her plate, model the sign for “more” while saying the word. If this is the first time you will attempt this exercise with your child, you may need to prompt him/her.
This exercise is designed to teach your child how to communicate what he/she wants. If your child says the word, or signs the word, he/she has successfully completed the exercise. This exercise is beneficial to kids that are unable to verbally or nonverbally communicate their wants and needs.
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Playing matching or sorting games
Categorizing or sorting things helps your child to understand the purpose of things, as well as the similarities and differences in attributes of objects. This type of therapy exercise can help build on your child’s problem-solving skills.
A fun way to implement this in the home is to sort pictures that you draw, cut out of magazines, etc. Group pictures together according to similar attributes whether it is foods you eat, fruits and vegetables, or things you wear. Mix and match the pictures to help your child identify problems (with pictures) and solutions to fix the problems.
For toddlers, you can have your child sort things according to color and shape. Puzzles are an excellent way for toddlers to sharpen their problem-solving skills because they need to find a way to make pieces fit where they belong.
Reading with your child
Reading has always been an encouraging activity to do when you have a child with ASD or TD (typical developing). As you are reading to or with your child, point at each picture, and tell your child what he/she is looking at. Depending on the level of your child’s communication skills, you can ask questions about the pictures or have your child point at pictures. An example would be if you are looking at a book with animal pictures, if there’s a yellow duck, ask your child to point to it.
Engage in conversation about the book. Depending on your child’s developmental age, you can take turns asking questions about the book. Ask questions about the characters in a yes or no format.
Use of facial muscle activities
Facial muscle activities are important for children with weakened oral motor skills. Facial muscle tone can have an effect on speech articulation in your child. Practice making funny faces and sounds with him/her. Have him/her imitate you while looking in the mirror.
You might wish to do this exercise with your child every day, especially in front of a mirror, so the child can see if he/she is making the same movements with his/her mouth.
Picture boards are an important form of communication with ASD children that have communication and language difficulties.
You can use a picture board to help your child understand the order of when to do different activities. For example, a picture of a kid playing can represent playtime and a picture of a kid eating can represent mealtime, and tell your child “first is mealtime then it’s playtime.”
A large percentage of children with ASD are known to have sensory processing disorder. This affects the way that their brain processes, understands, interprets, and receives information through their senses. Sensory play is designed to expose your child to a number of communication skills through the use of his/her senses.
Sensory exercises are done through the use of sensory bins, bottles, and/or bags. New words are introduced by exploring the senses and communication is accomplished by interacting with your child and asking questions.
Example: I use sensory bins and bottles with my son, and I fill the bottles with water and glitter. He shakes the bottle or spins them around to watch the glitter move. I will then ask him to show me how the glitter moves and things along those lines.
Many children with ASD enjoy sing-along exercises, and it can help them recognize words and associate sounds with objects. This introduces your child to new words and sounds on top of associating words and sounds.
Example: I sing the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with my son because it teaches him different sounds to make, what animals are on a farm, and the sounds that the animals make. Another song I use with my son is “Wheels on the Bus.” I will ask my son what the horn does, what the door does, and make the sounds with him encouraging him to imitate me.
Regular play activities
Engaging in regular play activities with your child is a great way to communicate with him/her and expand his/her vocabulary. You can grab one of their favorite toys like a truck or car and imitate the sounds that a car makes while telling your child what you are doing. This helps your child form sentences and put words together.
This article discussed a number of exercises that can be used at home for helping to improve your child’s communication and speech skills. As you can see the activities are fun and easy to do, and most of them are expanding on play activities with your child. This is what makes it easy to incorporate these communication skills into everyday life outside of therapy.
When you are a parent or caregiver actively involved in your child’s therapy you are helping your child have a reason to communicate and a reason to use this in things that they do on a daily basis. Working with a speech therapist or a speech-language pathologist is recommended for guidance and support with these exercises and to help your child improve his/her language skills.