At four years of age, children with autism ultimately develop language, as language is as just as important to children with autism just as it is to everyone else. However, because it takes some time for these children to develop fully when it comes to communication, some challenges are imminent. For instance, in The Journal of Nature, a study published in 2017 found that within peer groups, neurotypical children often develop a negative bias towards those on the autism spectrum in face to face social scenarios. Quite interestingly, in other situations without audio visual cues, the bias was not there.
This in essence implies that as they grow socially, lack of effective face to face communication with their peers is perhaps the greatest challenge that a child with autism face in language development. However, with the right intervention especially from the parent, a child with autism can learn to communicate well and fit in their peer groups in social situations.
In the process, however, you need, as a parent, to keep in mind that your child is different based on the fact that autism is a spectrum. Each child with autism can learn how to communicate but not necessarily through the spoken language, because they have different communication abilities. At the center of learning, when you extend motivation, support, and encouragement while getting your child through the language development process, you will have made a visible and remarkable difference in your child.
We have put together 10 steps, tried and tested, which we believe will help improve communication with your child with autism.
But before that, let’s first understand the two types of communication.
Pre-intentional communication – When an infant experiences hunger, their reaction to it would be to cry. Its mother will interpret this as a request for food and breastfeed or bottle-feed the baby. This kind of communication is essentially a reaction to an experience within them, which seeks to calm them and not affect people around them.
Intentional communication – Over time, every time this infant is hungry, it will know that crying actually means requesting for food and will begin to cry when hungry to request for food and not to react to hunger. For children with autism, development from pre-intentional to intentional communication is different from child to child.
Steps to Improve Communication
1. Opportunity lies in daily routines
If you are a new parent of a child with autism, you will soon discover that establishing routine or regular activities for your child helps them deal with unpredictability and anxiety, and eventually find a place of comfort. It is the same place where interaction between the two of you grows. This is the best opportunity to learn your child’s communication abilities and also help them learn some important skills that will help them connect with others socially. Remember the outcome of your interaction, and the learning thereof will determine how well they interact with others.
Perhaps the earliest sign of progress in communication is when your child uses echolalia, and you should be able to identify this stage. This is where, rather than crying for something or reaching your hand towards something, they will be repeating words they have heard before and do not understand. Once they grasp this step, they will find it easy to communicate meaningfully through words or phrases.
2. Presume competence
This is almost like a rule of thumb when interacting with your child. More than anything you need to allow your autistic child to be a child and not a child with special needs even in communication. Presuming that your child can communicate well is actually empowering them.
This is not only important for you, it teaches others like teachers and caregivers how to speak to your child and this will certainly lead to better and faster development.
3. Be in their world, at their level
In your child’s world, you may have noticed by now that there are people, objects, or other things that motivate them. Many children are motivated by food. However, others will be motivated by a toy, sibling, friend, or even a movie. This is the very object that as a parent you can take advantage of and use to encourage communication.
For instance, if a sibling is the motivating object, use the total communication approach, incorporating the real person as well as auditory and visual aid like their picture to encourage your child to communicate. Teach them how to request, which is fundamental in language development. For example, give them the picture and request it from them, and then have them give you the picture and let them request it from you.
Secondly, learn how to mimic them, especially during play time. Take turns and mimic his or her behaviors, sounds, and expressions when it is your turn. This helps them to learn how to copy you, which is an important learning aspect.
4. Request through labelling
Just to get our previous requesting illustration into perspective, labelling connects communication with your child’s reaction to certain situations. Before children learn how to talk, they will be all about signs and expressions. For example, when a child goes to open the fridge every time they are hungry, you can actually label this feeling in simple word or phrase that will be easy for them to grasp, like “hungry”.
Labelling works out well when there is consistency. In our example, going to open the fridge is a consistent action or behavior that, when labelled, will help them understand this feeling better. With time, they will know in their minds that when hungry, your response to them reaching out for the fridge and them saying “hungry” will be the same, therefore since saying it is easier, they will adapt to it faster and this is how they will have learned to request and communicate.
5. Request through challenge
As opposed to labelling, giving your child a challenge that will put them into a situation where they have to communicate is another strategy. At this point, we want to assume that you have already presumed their competence.
Here, you will be teaching your child how to ask for help. For instance, pick a toy they love and place it out of their reach but within sight. Their next obvious response is to point at it. This way, you know that they are requesting you to give it to them, and then you can label this action “give me” and give them time to learn the words. It is quite healthy and very important for a child to learn how to ask for help, and in autism, it helps them substitute their often-misunderstood reactions of anger and frustration by simply asking.
6. Play time is communication time
Play time for any child is a critical developmental session. It also happens to be the most conducive for learning language. For children with ASD, interactive play gives them a better platform to communicate with you. There are many games that might interest your child which will promote social interaction, for instance hide and seek. You could incorporate activities like singing, dancing, and reciting verses during play sessions as this will also help you discover their hidden abilities.
Most importantly, be sure to include activities that will put you in a face to face position so your child can see and hear you.
7. Role reversal
Often times, parents feel comfortable taking the leadership role, to guide their child in the right direction. However, letting your child be in charge in certain activities empowers them with vital life’s skills like decision making, problem solving, communication, and planning. When they lead and you follow, it gives them confidence and the assurance that you love them. Afterwards, naturally, it will become easier for them, to follow as you lead.
Keep an eye on them to know when it is time to stop and as usual, label, for example with words like ‘enough’.
8. Positive progress is worth a reward
It is in the nature of human beings to appreciate positive feedback. Develop the habit to reward your child when they make effort to communicate or understand what you are communicating. This gives them the confidence to keep trying.
Praise them, clap for them, hug them, and commend their achievements no matter how small, and do this immediately after the achievement to connect your response with their action.
9. Encouraging using the nonverbal (gestures and visuals)
The nonverbal forms the foundation for communication. Everything begins at this point. Nonverbal communication does not end here though; it will be helpful throughout learning and beyond.
At this point, encourage your child to imitate and respond to expressions and gestures. While at it, try accompanying the gestures with words. For instance, when pointing at something, you can accompany it with words like “see”, “look”.
Additionally, assistive technology and visual support like apps, devices, and pictures will go a long way into promoting language development.
10. Other Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) supports
These will help build better understanding in your child during communication:
- Picture schedule
- Cue cards
- Communication boards and books
- Voice output communication aids like gadgets which will produce digitized speech when your child presses a picture, button, or a symbol. There are plenty of programs and apps like this that you can install in a tablet.
Communication is a vital aspect of life and a child with autism has an equal right to learn how to communicate. In fact, communication is what brings out the ability that lies within them. Take time to learn as much as you can about teaching your child how to communicate, and you will be amazed at the results. One step at a time.