Best Ways to Help Kids Build Social and Verbal Skills

Children with autism spectrum disorder can sometimes find communication and social interaction difficult, and parents can feel shut out. But caregivers can make a big difference in opening the door to communication—and part of it might boil down to meat and potatoes. Why are we bringing dinner into the discussion? Keep reading!

Best Ways to Help Kids Build Social and Verbal Skills

Changing the way parents talk to their children at mealtime, bath time, and during other daily routines can lay the groundwork for the social and verbal skills children with autism need. Making small changes to basic conversations that families already have at home can help children with autism get that extra push they need to build new social and communication skills.

These three simple steps can lay the foundation for a healthy and vibrant life.     

1. Use Temptation to Spark Communication

Set up situations where children have to communicate to meet their needs. Let’s say a child loves mashed potatoes. Try putting just one spoonful on the plate, with the bowl of potatoes in sight. This encourages the child to ask for more of what is wanted and helps him/her understand that verbalizing needs has benefits. Or, put a favorite toy on a tall shelf—in sight but out of reach—so the child has to ask for it.

2. Try a “Less is More” Approach

Parents often get very good at “reading their children’s minds” and anticipating their needs. However, this can reduce opportunities for communication. When a parent can tell that a child wants to communicate specifically about something, start by asking a more general, less supportive question, such as, “What do you want?” even if the parent is pretty sure he/she already knows the answer to that question!

If a child still has trouble communicating, parents can provide a choice by modeling the word they want a child to say, or the gesture they want a child to use. Parents can even shape children’s hands into a point or another type of gesture to help them indicate what they want. In this way, children have several chances to communicate independently and learn to use their communication skills—even with a parent’s help at first—to get what they want.

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3. Keep Talking

Sometimes, parents tend to talk less to children who are nonverbal—but it’s important to keep the conversation flowing. Here’s an example of some helpful meal-time communication from a parent: “Oh, you have peas on your plate! They are green and round. I’ll cut your meat for you—here’s how we do it: cut, cut, cut.” This may sound like chatter, but it reinforces basic words, concepts, and actions, and encourages children to imitate them.

Before parents begin these strategies, they may want to take a step back, and spend a week paying attention to what motivates their child the most, and what routines a child likes to engage in with caregivers. Parents can then find ways to insert themselves in their child’s life, and use every opportunity to boost communication, no matter how mundane it may seem at first.

All of this sounds fairly simple, but it takes some consideration and commitment. Children with autism can be vastly different from one another when it comes to their needs and responses. These daily strategies may not work right away, and it may take a period of trial and error and troubleshooting for them to truly sink in. But remember, five minutes here and there throughout a typical day can really add up.

Of course, the best interventions happen early when it comes to children with autism—especially since the early warning signs involving communication can appear by their first birthday. This type of intervention works best in concert with a clinician who can offer a plan of action and work with parents to see it through.

Small successes along the way can lead to significant strides in a child’s cognitive development. Having autism doesn’t have to mean being isolated or out of touch with society. Engaging with children early in life can help them become socially engaged for a lifetime.

This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies

Katherine Walton

Katherine Walton

Katherine Walton received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Michigan State University before joining the Nisonger Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center as an assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry in 2014. Dr. Walton’s research focuses on the development, delivery, and evaluation of interventions for building early social-communication skills in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Dr. Walton is particularly interested in examining individual-level and family-level factors that contribute to the well-being of individuals with ASD and their family members.

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