Autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in New Zealand. Here are five strategies families can use to help children with autism spectrum disorder build their communication skills, along with examples of how to use them.
1. Motivate your child to communicate
Create opportunities for your child to practice communication skills. Show your child one of their favourite items and encourage your child to ask for it. Children are more likely to be engaged and communicate when activities are based on their interests. Compliment your child when they communicate. For instance, say “that’s a good question!” or “good job asking me for help!”
Denise, whose 3-year-old child, Tane, has minimal verbal skills, motivates her child to speak by placing a biscuit in a jar. Tane can see the biscuit but he cannot get it by himself. He has to ask for it. After Denise teaches him how to ask for it, she will give him the biscuit and praise him by saying “Good job telling me.”
2. Model communication skills
Model communication skills by speaking, using gestures and facial expressions. Your child will imitate them. While modelling, sit near your child and respond to the child’s imitation with praise for using the new skill.
Tane cannot open the biscuit jar, so he hands the jar to Denise. Denise models by saying “Biscuits, please” or “Open, please.”
For children with autism spectrum disorder with nonverbal communication or who have complex communication needs, consider using a tool, called an augmentative and alternative communication device, to supplement their speech.
This kind of communication can be low-tech, such as exchanging pictures to communicate. Or, it can be as high-tech as a communication app on a tablet.
Sophie, a 10-year-old with autism spectrum disorder who cannot yet speak, screams when asked to eat vegetables. Her father places the vegetables on her dish and her mother models pressing an icon on an app to say, “No, thank you,” and waiting for her response. Her mother also says “No, thank you” to give her a verbal model and waits for her response.
3. Prompt the child to use new communication skills
Prompt new communication skills by using verbal, visual or physical guidance.
Amiria, Sophie's mum, physically prompts her to use the communication device by holding his hand to press the “No, thank you” icon on her app. Then, Amiria takes away the vegetables and immediately offers something she likes.
4. Allow the child to communicate independently
Slowly remove the prompts so children don’t become dependent on them. You can do this by waiting one or two seconds before using a prompt in order to give the child an opportunity to communicate independently.
After Tane requests cookies several times, Denise waits for one second before using modelling or prompting strategies. Denise will periodically increase the time delay by one or two seconds until finding a delay that encourages independent responding.
Sophie says “No, thank you,” with the app when Amiria prompts her, so she starts waiting for one second before using modelling or prompting. Amiria will increase the time delay by one or two seconds each day.
5. Expand and generalize to other people, settings and activities
Using modelling and prompting strategies to add new words to phrases the children have already mastered.
When Tane can independently ask for biscuits by saying “Biscuits, please” several times, Denise teaches him a new word by adding “Want biscuits, please.”
When Sophie can independently use the communication app to say “No, thank you,” several times, Amiria teaches her a new word by adding “No carrot, thank you.”
Use these strategies during your children’s everyday activities, such as brushing their teeth, having lunch, going to the park or riding in a car.
It is essential to use these strategies with different people and in different settings consistently over time.