Fostering Language Development In Children with Autism

There are ways to foster language development. There are two books I particularly like that give great tips in how to help a child initiate speech and communication. One book is SLP Teresa Cardon’s book Initiations and Interactions and the other one is First Steps in Intervention with Your Child with Autism: Frameworks for Communication. Teresa talks about the ability to initiate being critical for the success of the child. Children with autism respond to things but don’t often initiate. She suggests to cease anticipating a child’s needs and set the stage for intitiation.

There are a number of ways one can do this. Teresa suggests setting up situations that require the child to involve an adult. Place wanted items in sight but out of reach. Put a snack or favorite toy inside a jar so the child has to request help.

For any interaction or activity to be successful for a child with autism, it has to have 3 parts to it:

  • a clear beginning
  • a logical sequence of steps
  • a way to know the task is finished

Let the child know when something is going to end and something new is about to start. Show the sequence of steps through pictures accompanied by text. Have a “finished” area, a basket, or some other way to signal time. A child is far more likely to engage and participate if they know what it is expected, how to do it through a sequence of steps, and when it will end.

When using visual supports, pair that support with text. For a young child, that text may be just one word. For example, if you show a picture of juice, write “juice” underneath. A nonverbal child may learn to read before they can speak. This was the case with my daughter. She didn’t speak until she was almost 5 but was reading before that.

Allow time for a child to respond. Adults often jump in way too fast to the rescue. A child with autism will need more time to process auditory and visual input. Teresa recommends waiting 15 – 30 seconds for initiation to happen. Try different games that involve turn taking. If you can’t remember games from when you were a child, have a look at the book Playing, Laughing, and Learning or Stepping Out. These books are chocked full of ideas to initiate play and interaction with children.

Consider using music to promote speech. Children often sing better than they speak because music provides the framework of rhythm, shorter phrases, repetition and a melody that provides an auditory cue. My son, Marc, sings Oh Canada much better than speaking the words. Music can also be teamed with actions once a song is learned so some gross motor planning can be worked in there are well. On CD I really like is Say G’Day – it combines music, movement and singing.

Model speech as much as you can, but avoid extraneous words that do not add meaning to a sentence such as please and thank you. We are a polite society, but adding these words to simple sentences can make speech more challenging. My son, age 14, put a computer toy on the kitchen counter and took the back off. This was my cue to change the batteries. I modeled, “I need help”, waited for Marc to say it. Even at 14 and with the amount of speech that he has, he will still try and take the easier route of just giving visual cues about what he needs rather than using language.

Avoid using idiomatic expressions that may not make sense or that the child might take literally like, “You’re pulling my leg.” Monitor pronoun use because pronouns are often not understood by children with autism.

Reading is a great way to help language development. Don’t shy away from simplifying text. Put sticky notes over words that are too difficult and substitute something easier. Keep the child motivated by reading books that appeal to a special interest such as dinosaurs or trains. Ask simple questions like, “Can you put your finger the cat?” This helps with comprehension of language.

This may sound unusual, but both of my children watch DVD’s with the English subtitles on. This helps improve their reading by hearing and seeing how words sound and look.

Patience and creating opportunities for speaking is key for language development. Engage in activities that support language and are both motivating and fun for the child.

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