Many children with autism spectrum disorders have significant difficulty communicating and interacting socially across different environments. I have organized some ideas for helping children with autism spectrum disorders or other communication delays become more effective communicators and social interaction partners.
Children learn to develop good social interaction skills by first learning to be good at turn taking. Some ideas for teaching your child good turn taking skills may include:
- Showing your child how to take turns in an activity and then giving he/she a turn
- Pausing to give your child a turn whenever you are playing games with him/her
- Following his/her interest and lead when playing with him/her
- Finding ways to take turns with different objects/games (balls are a good toy for this)
Teaching your child to take turns will show your child how to engage with you and gives him/her a role in the interaction which is the start of social reciprocity. You can try working on this skill when playing simple games such as peek-a-boo or chase as well as during meal times, bath time, and washing hands. This will ensure that your child has a role in the routine and is truly a social partner.
Increasing social interaction and communication skills also requires the use of models to support your child in learning specific words and/or gestures to for making requests, protesting, and sharing information. Ideas for modeling functional words may include:
- Demonstrating specific words and gestures that are meaningful (favorite videos, snacks, or toys)
- Emphasizing these words/gestures by repeating them often in the situation that you want the word to be used in
- Repeating, repeating, and repeating these important words, phrases or gestures at every opportunity throughout the day and in different activities even if your child does not repeat them after you
Communication can also be encouraged by using natural reinforcement. Ideas for the use of natural reinforcement might include:
- Responding to communication attempts with hugs, smiles and encouragement
- Helping your child to understand the meaning of words he/she uses to request by immediately giving them the requested item
- Using objects that occur naturally in the environment, activity-like toys while playing, peek-a-boo type games/routines during a social routine.
These can all be used to help your child transition the skills they are learning to different environments and communication partners. This is usually more effective for getting these skills to transition than the use of food or stickers which aren’t always readily available across different locations and people.
Communication attempts and social interaction can be increased by arranging the environment to promote these skills. You can arrange the environment by:
- Giving smaller portions of a snack or drink
- Putting favorite toys or parts of a game out of reach so that he/she can use words and gestures (such as pointing) to ask for these items
- Surprising your child by doing something unexpected, unusual or silly (e.g., put his/her cup on your head instead of on the table) and waiting for some type of reaction/response
If these ideas don’t work and your child does not initiate communication, you can demonstrate the word or gesture and provide your child with the desired item.
One big mistake that many adults who communicate with children make is not allowing time for the child to process what has been said or what is being asked of them. This is especially true with children who have communication disorders and those on the autism spectrum. In reality we should be allowing these children more time to process information and then to communicate. Increased independent communication can be accomplished simply by waiting.
WAITING helps communication because a short pause is a natural way of taking turns in conversations and by waiting for your child to use his words you are enhancing his abilities to be a communication partner. In addition, you are using objects in his/her environment (favorite toys, games, snacks) as a natural cue for him/her to communicate.
You can wait for your child to initiate some communication attempts by:
- Beginning a routine your child is familiar with (snack, chase game, tickle game), taking a few turns then STOPPING.
- Before asking your child to “say” something, WAIT silently to give him a chance to use his communication skills independently
- If your child does not respond, prompt him/her by asking them simple questions like, “What do you want?” or “Open the jar?” and then WAIT again.
I recommend counting to at least 10 in your head before expecting a response from your child. This is often a very difficult skill for those of us who tend to talk too much. That includes me. As a speech therapist I am often too focused on speaking and not focused enough on waiting, watching, and listening.
You can encourage your child to add new words and use phrases and sentences by expanding and recasting what they have said. Ideas for helping your child increase their use of a variety of vocabulary words might include:
- Expanding on a word or phrase your child says by adding more information; for example, if he/she says “truck”, you can say, “I see a big truck.” Or “I see a blue truck.”
- Encourage attempts to copy or imitate what you have modeled with hugs and praise
- Do not pressure your child to repeat what you said. Move along with him/her to other toys or objects that he/she is interested in
It is important to use prompts and cues to help your child learn to communicate and interact. However, you must be cautious about making your child dependent on prompts. Children who are dependent on prompts often only respond or make attempts to communicate when given the same specific prompt in the same location. Therefore, they are unable to use their communication in different settings or with other communication partners. Ideas for using prompts might include:
- Telling your child what you want him/her to do (e.g., “Tell me what you want.”)
- Pointing to your lips as you make the sounds.
- Using a picture or object to help your child understand your words.
- Lightly touching your child’s arm to encourage them to gesture.
- Moving your child’s hands to make the gesture (point) or to grab/touch a picture.
Use these cues as reminders to help your child use communication without getting upset or anxious. If your child does not copy you or participate, continue with the activity.
The next time the opportunity comes, say the word or model the gesture to give your child the opportunity to respond without extra help first, and then gradually add more cues to help him/her use his communication. Gestures and visual cues may create less prompt dependence for children that are repeating phrases frequently as opposed to using verbal cues such as “say ball”.
These tips were adapted from the Family Guided Routines Based Intervention a project of Florida State University
Below are some of my favorite websites for helping families get ideas for working on communication at home:
(go to the Materials Exchange menu then look under social skills/pragmatics for social skills stories)
More Than Words, Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Fern Sussman
Do-Watch-Listen-Say, Social and Communication Intervention for Children with Autism, Kathleen Ann Quill
Solving Behavior Problems in Autism, Improving Communication with Visual Strategies, Linda A. Hodgdon
The Social skills Picture Book, Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism, Jed Baker