Expert Ways to Help Your ASD Child Learn and Maintain Language

“Why does it seem that an autistic child doesn’t retain words that he has spoken before?”
                                                                                                                                                                 — Paul
Expert Ways to Help Your ASD Child Learn and Maintain Language

Hi there,

Thank you so much for your question.  It is a really great one and highlights a really important aspect of effective teaching.  It is not uncommon for children with autism to appear to have learned a new word, and then the next day, or in the future, for it to appear as though they are not able to say that same word.  One possible reason for this is that the teaching procedures were not effective or we didn’t practice it enough.  Maximizing learning potential requires that we teach skills in such a way that people can use a skill when they need to the most, that they continue to be empowered with the new skills that appear to have been taught.  Here are some tips to maximize learning potential with the teaching procedures:

1. Use a lot of different examples

Sometimes we think a child has mastered a skill or a concept when in fact they have not. If we think about the verbal behavior or talking about the things we see in our environment such as a dog, we would say that someone has learned to call a dog a dog because we have seen them call a dog a dog.  However, how do we know that a dog is a dog and not a cat?  They both have four legs, paws, a tail and fur and so many other things in common.

There are critical features that make a cat a cat, as there are for a dog.  In order to teach your child how to discriminate what makes a dog a dog, it is really important to use lots of different examples of the things we are teaching them to say.  For example, if I were teaching my child to tell me they saw a dog when I pointed to a picture of one, it would be a really good idea to use pictures of lots of different kinds of dogs.  So I would want to show a picture of a pug, a German shepherd, a bull dog and many, many others.  I would also want to notice dogs in all kinds of other ways.

For example, I might ask my child to tell me what that is as I point to a dog when we saw one out in the community, if we saw one on the television, if there was a stuffed animal toy dog in a store, or if we saw a dog in any other way.  Practice is really the main point of it all, with all kinds of different versions of the same “concept,” that is the “concept” of a dog.  This ensures that when they come across a novel version of a dog that they are able to identify it or call it by the right word because they have learned the critical features of the concept of a “dog.”

2. Involve everyone that interacts with your child

Let your child practice with as many people that they know as possible. Have siblings practice and other family members, friends and teachers practice too.  The more people doing the same kinds of things means the child with autism may learn it faster or at least be able to use that skill or behavior with a bunch of different people.

It is not helpful if they are only able to do it with a person.  The new skill needs to be available for them to use when the need to, when navigating the real world.  It is also important that everyone that is teaching the new behavior is doing the same thing.  If not this may affect your child’s acquisition and could be another reason why it looks like they have a skill on one day and then they appear to have lost it the next day.  In clinical terms this is called treatment integrity and it is critical that everyone is on the same page.

3. Measure progress – make no assumptions

As long as you are practicing a new skill you should be tracking progress. This means recording and graphing how they are doing with respect to learning the new skill or behavior.  This could be an accuracy measure (the number of correct responses over the number of correct + incorrect responses x 100), a frequency measure (a tally of the number of correct responses) or a probe measure.

The key is to establish mastery criterion prior to teaching so that you have a goal to achieve before you move ahead to the next skill to teach.  For example you might set a mastery criterion of 80% correct before moving on to the next skill or level of difficulty.  This criterion will be informed by your child’s unique learning history and style as well as by the type of skill you are trying to teach.  This allows you to be objective and informs decisions around when and what to teach next.

4. Set up a practice schedule

Make sure that as your child masters a new skill that you have plan to practice it again after some time has passed. This helps to make sure that all is not lost.  This is child specific and would informed by his/her learning style as well as by what you were teaching.

5. Verbal behavior considerations

One other explanation that could account for this is related to language development. When we think about language development it typically begins with requests and as we become more and more able to request for things, actions or people that we want, we begin to learn how to talk about things in a different way.

What we now know is that for some kids just because they can say “cookie” when they want a cookie does not mean that they will say “cookie” when they see a picture of a cookie, or an actual cookie.  It could be that your child has learned how to say certain words because he wants those things or actions but at the times that he does not want them he has not learned to label them.

In some cases you have to spend time systematically teaching words that they would use for different reasons.  For example I might teach a child to say “chip” when he wants a chip and once he has learned it in that context I would teach him to say “chip” when he was asked “what is this?” in the presence of a picture of a chip.

I hope this helps but I would also recommend getting in touch with a local behavior analyst as they would be able to help you assess and identify what is going on with your unique child and develop a solution informed by that assessment.

This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism

Sarah Kupferschmidt

Sarah Kupferschmidt realized that Behavior Analysis was her calling when she first started working with children with autism in 1999. Once she discovered its effectiveness and the impact it had in helping children with autism and their families, it inspired her to pursue a Masters of Arts in Psychology with a specialization in Behavior Analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).  Not only does Sarah enjoy working directly with children with autism, she’s also very passionate about empowering others with the most effective tools to teach children with autism.  She has been training staff and clinicians and coaching parents on how to do this since she started.  She is also passionate about the science and research behind the tools that she advocates.  In partnership with Brock University, Sarah is currently involved in a research project that involves the evaluation of a parent-training package that will help empower parents with tools to teach a child with autism important safety skills. She has been a Part-Time or Adjunct Professor since 2005, teaching ABA courses.  Sarah also regularly presents workshops to parents, therapists, and educators on a variety of topics related to teaching or working with individuals with autism.  Sarah is a Huffington Post Contributor, a TEDx speaker, and was named Top Safety Contributor for Autism Parenting Magazine in 2014 and Top Behavior Analysis Writer for 2015. Visit her site:

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