Communication is the act of exchanging a message between two people, either vocally or non-vocally, and it begins at the very beginning stages of life. At the first stages of communication, we may cry or babble in order to self-soothe or react to something unpleasant or exciting.
Later, we may start to reach, point, or pull to get at what we want or need until we can start to use words or other forms of communication to convey our message. Children will start to learn that communication is meaningful: it has an impact on their environment and is a two-way street. For many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), communication and speech may develop differently or more slowly. Children with ASD also have difficulty understanding that communication is used in tandem with others and conveys a message. In addition, children with ASD may develop speech but have difficulty understanding how to use communication appropriately, needing to be specifically taught the significance of their words and actions. How children learn to communicate affects other areas of development, including learning and behavior.
Here are some strategies that can help teach or build communication:
Determine your child’s communication level
Recognize your child’s current level of communication, and take baby steps towards an ultimate goal. Moving too quickly or taking too big of a step can lead to frustration, hopelessness, or undesired behavior.
Keep it simple
Using language that is overly complicated or using too many words can make understanding and learning more difficult. Start one step above what your child is currently able to do, and move slowly from there.
Use your child’s interests to teach and build communication
Motivation is a huge part of communication and can be helpful when teaching your child how to request something, ask questions, or comment.
Give your child the opportunity and time to communicate or respond
Children learn to communicate when they need something. Create opportunities for kids to request items or activities by placing them in sight but out of reach. Give portions of requested food or pieces of toys to create opportunities for repetition, and provide time for a response.
Gently sabotage routine situations
You can create opportunities for your child to make a request or ask for help by ‘sabotaging’ routine events (such as leaving out an item that is needed to finish a task).
We previously mentioned that children with ASD may not always communicate through speech, so we need to provide other ways to communicate. Desired or socially acceptable methods of communication can include:
Reaching, pointing, or pulling
Children can learn to reach toward or point to what they want. Children can also learn that pulling you toward what they want will also often get them that item or activity. These gestures can be taught individually or as a chain of behaviors in order to promote persistence of communicative intent.
Teaching a child to use sign language as a means of communication can reduce challenging or undesired behavior by giving children an appropriate way to get their wants and needs met.
Augmentative, alternative communication device
Children can learn communication skills using an alternative and augmentative communication system (AAC). These devices can range from low- to high-tech and provide children with more effective ways to communicate. Some low-tech devices include:
- Communication boards, choice boards, or menus.
- Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), whereby a picture or sentence strip is handed to a communication partner to make a request or relay a message.
- High-tech devices are those devices that speak to the person at the push of a button. Parents are oftentimes afraid that if they give their child an AAC system or teach their child to use signs and gestures as described above, this might discourage speech. Studies, however, demonstrate that the reverse is actually true. A speech-language pathologist is someone who can assist in how to use and or acquire an AAC system.
Communication is an important part of a child’s development, and learning should include all aspects of communication: requesting, appropriate refusing, gaining information, commenting, and sharing experiences. Caregivers should consult with professionals working with their family or child when determining the best method of communication and goals to teach effective and functional communication.
Shahrzad (“Shari”) Pirnia Adler is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who specializes in helping families and schools with children’s behavioral struggles, ASD diagnoses, or other developmental disabilities. Shari currently works at the National Speech/Language Therapy Center, which provides in-home ABA services to children and their families throughout the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Maryland. She has been instrumental in the design of their dental desensitization program that helps families be able to bring their children to the dentist. For more information or to contact Shari or another National Speech Therapist, please visit the National Speech/Language website.
This article was featured in Issue 64 – Teaching the Skills Your ASD Child Needs