Alternative Communication Ideas for Individuals With Autism

By Jonel Condra

Many individuals on the autism spectrum do not even have the use of basic gestures to help them get their needs across. They may rely on more primitive gestures such as grabbing, pulling and reaching toward wanted items. This puts a lot of pressure on the communication partner to come up with what the individual is trying to communicate, so learn some alternative ways in which you can do so.

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One basic first step in trying to implement any communication system that may be augmenting verbal speech is making sure the individual is motivated to communicate and is motivated to interact with others prior to just giving them any communication system.

Many individuals on the autism spectrum do not even have the use of basic gestures to help them get their needs across. They may rely on more primitive gestures such as grabbing, pulling and reaching toward wanted items. This puts a lot of pressure on the communication partner to come up with what the individual is trying to communicate. One simple idea for encouraging more specific communication is to help your child learn to point. Most children are pointing to what they want shortly after the first year of life and sometimes even earlier. Once an individual can point to a specific item, part of an item, place, photo, and/or picture, he/she can really let you know what they want. In my mind, “pointing is communicating specifically”.

It is important to teach children to point to things that motivate them and have some communicative meaning. We don’t want children to be pointing just for the sake of the motor action of pointing without sharing this information or using the pointing to tell someone something. In order to get children to work on pointing, you may have to start by putting favorite items out of reach and molding their open hand reach into a point. Once they start to get this idea, you may be able to place some favorite items into clear containers or a clear shoe bag and have the child point to the one he/she wants.

Once your trained speech therapist has determined that your child has some basic gestural skills especially pointing, he/she may determine that your child is ready for a more sophisticated augmentative and alternative communication system involving the use of photos and or pictures. At some point your child even want to try a voice output communication device to aide their other communication systems.

It should be noted that the use of any augmentative and alternative communication system does not prohibit your child from speaking. In fact, research has shown that children who use augmentative systems often begin to increase their verbal communication.

One big suggestion I have is to not purchase an expensive device or app until you are sure your child is able to use it to communicate functionally. You may be able to use an app or device for a 30 day trial to make sure your child is really using it for communication purposes and not just entertainment purposes. You should discuss specific communication strengths and weaknesses with your speech and occupational therapists as well as educators to make sure whatever system your child is using works across different people and places.

For information regarding specific therapy services or other information please visit our website at:

http://intermountainhealthcare.org/services/pediatricrehab/Pages/home.aspx