5 Essential Language Skills if Your Child has Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families face numerous daily challenges, including awkward social behaviors, limited communication, and behavioral problems. Early identification of ASD is becoming more necessary as it allows families to identify opportunities for interventions that could further development. It’s unknown why children with ASD have limited communication, however late identification almost invariably leads to behavior problems (Sundberg & Partington, 1998). Behavior that is largely unacceptable, such as crying, screaming or head banging may function as a way for the child to communicate her needs or wants (Sundberg & Partington, 1998). Further, a child with limited communication may also tantrum or misbehave out of frustration over not having his needs met. For these reasons, it’s important to identify 5 essential language skills that your child needs to be developing if he or she has a diagnosis of autism. 

Asking for Something

Children with autism are typically either unable to make a request or they have learned to make requests using inappropriate behaviors such as crying or screaming. The goal is to increase the number of verbal requests they are able to make. Here is an example of how to teach requests to children with autism who are verbal. If your child points to a cup to request a drink, prompt them by saying “drink” and have them repeat it. Then immediately reinforce their verbal behavior with praise and by giving them the drink. This behavior may need to be shaped over time, so be patient. When teaching your child to use words to make requests, be sure to start with requests that you have readily available, such as the child’s toys or a snack or drink when at home. Food and drink are particularly satisfying and may serve as a starting point in teaching your child to make requests, however this should be done in moderation. When identifying things in the environment that your child may request, be sure to have a variety of things readily available and be consistent with the reinforcers that you are offering. Children with autism prefer a routine, and may prefer particular toys. Be sure you have your child’s preferred toys readily available to offer as reinforcement. 

Copying Your Behavior

If you’ve ever seen a child put on her mother’s high heels, or his dad’s work boots, it’s evident that children learn many skills that are not directly taught simply by watching what others do. If your child mimics a few of your behaviors, then continuing this process will be relatively simple, but for children who have autism, it may still be a little more difficult than children without this disorder. If your child does not currently mimic any behaviors, then this task will require more intense intervention and you may need to seek help from a professional. If you can teach this at home, be sure to use a strong reinforcer as soon as the behavior is demonstrated. For instance, if your child enjoys being tickled, do so immediately after he imitates your behavior. This will encourage your child to continue imitating you, even as you introduce new movements for her to copy. 

Understanding and Following Directions

If your child can copy your behavior, teaching them to understand and follow directions will be much easier. You may need to start with giving a command and imitating it, and gradually build up to giving a command and having your child perform the behavior you previously modeled. This is an important skill that all children need to develop. It will provide added success with social relationships, educational settings, and at home. One way you can train your child to follow directions is to do something I like to call “compliance training”. This simply allows the child to practice doing what they are asked to do, and children with autism may need a little more practice than others. The compliance training exercise only needs to last a few minutes. Here is how you can get set up for it. Place three items in the room near where you and your child are interacting, but still out of your reach. This could be a bottled water, your keys, and a magazine. Place them a short distance away from your child and simply request “Could you please bring me that bottled water?” THIS IS IMPORTANT: As soon as they bring the water provide verbal praise, tickles, hugs, or whatever else might be reinforcing for about 10 seconds. Then request the second item. You want to follow this up with more praise, more tickles, etc. You might even say “thank you so much for being a good helper”. Lastly, ask them to bring you the third item and like before, immediately provide reinforcement. This concludes the task. It takes only a few minutes and essentially, you are allowing your child to see that their willingness to help will be met with praise, gratitude and positive interactions. This will make it much more likely for them to do as requested in the future. However, this may be a skill that needs to be practiced frequently, so that the passing of time doesn’t lead to forgetfulness. 

Identify Things and Actions

As I mentioned before, children with autism demonstrate difficult behavior when they are unable to ask for something they need, but this may stem from a deeper problem of not being able to identify it. Therefore, if you have a child with autism, it’s important to assign a name to the things in the child’s environment. The most difficult part of this is to be able to have the child identify the item without also expecting to receive it. For instance, if you are having dinner with your family and your child points to the toy truck and says “truck” you want to reinforce the correct labeling with praise, rather than giving the child the item. This also teaches the child that we can identify things that may occur in the future. In the same scenario, a child who says “Ice cream” will likely get the response of “Yes, we are going to have ice cream when we finish our dinner”. When you are first teaching your child to identify things, remember to start slow. Only have them identify things that are relevant to the child on a day to day basis. A child with autism who does not encounter a cat on a daily basis in their home, does not have a need to identify a “cat” when you are first teaching him to identify things. It is also best to stick to nouns before moving on to verbs, which tend to be more complex. Another important consideration is to teach your child to identify multiple things from multiple categories. It is best if a child can identify multiple food related items, multiple toys, multiple school items, clothes, etc. Helping your child identify things or actions can be done either vocally or through sign language.  

Initiate and Sustain Interaction with Others

Children with autism have poor social skills, but these skills can be developed over time. This can be very difficult for children with autism, because our words have different meanings based on our tone and inflection. This is often an intricate part of communication that is overlooked by individuals with autism. The first step is teaching a child to simply respond to the words of others. For most people, a polite “hello” from a stranger will elicit a reciprocal greeting. Individuals with autism will typically not respond at all to this greeting unless there has been some training. You can begin training your child to do this by first, identifying things that are interesting to your child. Second, you want to encourage your child to interact by having her finish your sentence. For example, you might say something like “The puppy says…” or “I love…” and allow your child to finish the sentence. If your child is able to adequately identify a number of things and actions, this activity should be performed without prompting. However, if you have to use a prompt, then you are not teaching an interaction, but rather you are teaching them to imitate. Teaching interactions is important because eventually your child will be exposed to individuals outside of the family unit, including doctors, nurses, teachers and peers. 

Teaching language to a child with autism is not an easy accomplishment. The suggestions above are a general overview of things that are important to consider when approaching this task, but it is for you and your family to decide whether these skills can be taught at home or if a professional is needed. 

Laura Beth Cooper5 Essential Language Skills if Your Child has Autism