Three Ways to Help Children with Autism Communicate

2/22/2019 By Sheri Homishak, BCBA


Every parent wants their child to be able to express themselves and for their needs to be met. For children with autism, communication is often a major challenge. According to facts and figures reported by Autism Speaks, an estimated one-third of individuals with autism are non-verbal. When a child is unable to effectively communicate through speaking, they may rely on other forms of behavior to get their needs met. For example, they may fuss or cry to get your attention or they may gesture by pointing, or take your hand and lead you to items or activities that they want or need.

While these other forms of behavior may help them to communicate in some situations, they’re not always effective across multiple settings or with multiple people, especially with non-family members who may not know the child very well. For children with autism, communication deficits can present in a variety of different ways:

  • some children with autism are completely non-vocal
  • other children with autism may be able to vocalize but it may be difficult to understand what they are saying
  • some children may vocalize, but use only a small or specific set of words
  • in some instances, a child may say words frequently but not use them functionally to ask for what they want or need. For example, they merely repeat words other people say to them or repeat things they hear on television or in movies.

If your child is struggling with communication, it’s important to collaborate with their speech therapist and other members of your child’s treatment team to determine the most appropriate method of improving that skill.

1. Practicing vocalizations (speaking)

If your child frequently makes vocalizations and will repeat words on request, then your speech therapist and/or BCBA may recommend specific teaching methods to strengthen, increase, or make those vocalizations more functional. The easiest way to teach your child that language is valuable is by having them use words to request items and activities that they really enjoy, like their favorite toys, movies or a special snack.

2. Using pictures

Children with language delays may be taught how to use a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). With PECS, children are taught to approach another person and give them a picture of what they want in exchange for that item or activity. Here’s an example of a PECS sheet.


3. Learning sign language

Sign language is also an effective way to teach your child to communicate; it’s even been show to promote and strengthen vocalizations. Don’t worry: you don’t need to be fluent in sign language to use it with your child and it won’t prevent them from learning to talk. Those are very common myths! Many parents find that sign language is a more natural approach for their child as gesturing can often be shaped into the specific signs to represent what they want. Another advantage of sign language is that you don’t have to have materials on hand, like picture symbols, to use it.

No matter which mode of communication training you and your treatment team decide to pursue, providing your child with an effective way to communicate is very important. It will not only help decrease frustration and reduce problem behaviors, like crying or fussing to get what they want, but it can also give your child the foundational skills they need to interact with other people.

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