Improving Communication & Behavior - Autism Awareness

Improving Communication & Behavior

By Linda Hodgdon, M.Ed., CCC-SLP, Speech Pathologist

Students with autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD and other diagnoses that fall within the autism spectrum experience significant challenges in communication and social skills. In addition, they may demonstrate behavior challenges that can prevent successful participation in school and family activities.

There are many other students with different diagnoses or different communication or behavior challenges whose educational needs may be similar. When we learn what types of communication supports and teaching techniques help students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, we discover that many other students benefit from these same strategies.

Recognizing that students have different learning styles leads to the discovery that most students with autism spectrum disorders are visual learners. That means they understand what they see better than what they hear. Many other students with communication and/or behavior challenges also demonstrate strength in understanding what they see compared to what they hear. The significance of this observation has immeasurable implications for communication, social interactions, and teaching.

Current thinking suggests that communication impairments transcend all aspects of the lives of these students. While it is common for educational programming to focus on developing communication skills for these students, that focus in most settings tends to be directed primarily toward developing the student’s expressive communication skills. In many environments, comparatively little attention is aimed toward increasing the student’s ability to understand the communication in his life.

It is important to understand why an inability to effectively take in and process information can be a significant challenge for these students

How important is communication for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders?

It is critical! Communication is one of the primary areas of difficulty for persons who experience autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD, and others within that autism spectrum. The difficulty is pervasive, affecting a wide range of skills including the student’s ability to:

  • understand social communication
  • understand environmental cues
  • follow directions
  • perform self-management or organizational tasks
  • develop effective expressive communication.

Improving communication is one of their most important goals.

Many of these students talk. Do they still have a problem?

Communication is more complex than “just speech.” It involves multiple skills including establishing attention, taking in information, interpreting that information, remembering past information, and eventually formulating a response. The communication disability of these students is not just a problem with expression. It can permeate all aspects of this communication process.

Can you explain this more?

Consider this example:

Effective communication requires the ability to rapidly establish and shift attention, take in and process information and formulate responses appropriate for the situation. These students may experience difficulty accomplishing these skills at the speed necessary to participate effectively in communication interactions. They can have difficulty rapidly interpreting information, particularly auditory information. Their comprehension of the demands in their environment is frequently based more on piecing together visual cues and expected routines rather than understanding specific verbal messages. Their lack of cooperation or lack of independence may really be the result of not understanding fully what is expected of them or what is going to happen. They may be accurately interpreting only fragments of a communication message.

Why don’t these students understand?

There can be many reasons. One reason is that communication can happen very quickly. Forms of communication such as speech, manual signs, and some gestures are transient; they remain present for only a short period of time and then they disappear. These students do not seem to be able to focus their attention and process the information as rapidly as is necessary to handle many communication situations. A spoken message may be finished before the student is focused enough to receive it.

How do you make communication easier for these students to understand?

Make communication more visual. Many of these students appear to understand what they see better than what they hear. Visual information remains available long enough to enable the student to focus on it or return to it as needed to establish memory for the message it is communicating. Visual tools provide a non-transient foundation for more effective communication. Using visual support builds on student’s strengths rather than placing more demands on their area of greatest difficulty. When visual tools are used to give these students information and directions, their comprehension increases significantly.

What are visual tools and supports?

They are those things we see. Body movements, environmental cues, pictures, objects and written language can all be used to support communication. Our environment is full of signs and logos and objects and other things that we can use for communication supports. In addition, we can create special pictures or tools to help meet specific communication needs.

Can you give me some examples?

There are too many to list! Schedules and calendars are the most common visual tools used to give students information. Step-by-step directions, choice boards, and classroom rules provide structure in classrooms. They help students by creating an environment that is more predictable and understandable. Visual tools used to give information are probably the most helpful, particularly for gaining student’s positive participation and for avoiding behavior problems.

Why do behavior problems exist?

That’s a good question! The most critical step in attempting to structure environments and solve behavior problems is to identify why the behavior difficulties exist. For students with autism spectrum disorders, communication difficulties can be a primary reason, a “root cause,” for many behavior problems. When analyzing situations where behavior problems occur it becomes obvious that many of them are the result of a student not understanding what is going on in his life. It is common to assume that students understand. In reality, many times they don’t.

If students don’t understand, what can you do?

Use visual tools. Visual tools help students by supporting changes and transitions. They help students understand what they are supposed to do. They help clarify what not to do. The purpose of using these aids is to enhance the student’s understanding of what is happening in his life and what is expected of him. The result is successfully reducing or eliminating communication, social and behavior challenges.

Understanding why problems exist and where communication breakdowns contribute to behavior difficulties is a significant step toward developing successful solutions. Once a student understands, he is more apt to comply with the demands of the setting.

How important is it to use visual strategies for these students?

Using visually supported communication is an extremely helpful approach for students with communication and behavior challenges. Expanding the use of visual strategies is a needed dimension in developing appropriate communication skills, social interaction skills, and positive behavior and participation of students with autism spectrum disorders. Many people use a few visual tools in their homes and educational environments. Few people use this medium of communication support nearly as much as would be beneficial for their students.


Hodgdon, Linda (1995). Visual Strategies for Improving Communication. Troy: QuirkRoberts Publishing

Hodgdon, Linda (1999). Solving Behavior Problems in Autism. Troy: QuirkRoberts Publishing

Linda Hodgdon, M.Ed., CCC-SLP
Speech Pathologist
Communication Specialist
Consultant for Autism and Related Disabilities

(c) Linda Hodgdon 2001
QuirkRoberts Publishing, P.O. Box 71, Troy, MI 48099-0071

Tags: , , .

Editorial Policy: Autism Awareness Centre believes that education is the key to success in assisting individuals who have autism and related disorders. Autism Awareness Centre’s mission is to ensure our extensive autism resource selection features the newest titles available in North America. Note that the information contained on this web site should not be used as a substitute for medical care and advice.

Read Our Full Editorial Policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *