Many children with autism struggle to communicate with other people because they have problems processing and understanding language. The intervention and therapy necessary to increase a child’s language and communication skills vary depending on his needs. Although making conversation with others can be a huge challenge for children on the autism spectrum, they can learn with the help and encouragement of their parents, teachers and peers, according to the Autism Society.
Determine the areas of communication your child is struggling with the most. For example, children with autism can have difficulty asking and answering questions. Many also require prompting to initiate and continue conversation. Others use echolalia -- repeating words or phrases they hear -- as a way of learning to say words. Your child may have communication problems in more than one of these areas.
Build on the language skills your child already has. Once you determine the level of her communication abilities, focus on her weakest areas first. For instance, your child may have a vocabulary of many words, but she may not know how to use the words in their proper context; perhaps she can't use them on her own in conversational language. Or perhaps she may know what an object is and can name it when she sees it, yet doesn't know how to ask for it.
Set up situations so that your child has to ask for what he wants. Young children with language delays often get what they want by crying or by throwing tantrums. Teach your child to ask for a drink instead of crying for it. For example, when you feed him lunch, set out an empty cup. At first, you may have to prompt him to ask for the milk that isn't there. The goal is to eventually have your child ask for things without having to prompt him to do so.
Give your child reasons to ask questions. As an example, remove a toy truck your child especially likes to play with from his toy box. When he sees it isn't there, he will have to ask you where it is. If he wants to play with it, he needs to know where to find it.
Acknowledge your child whenever she makes comments about something on her own. For example, if she sees another little girl with a doll like hers and then points it out to you -- even if she only says the word doll -- let her know she’s right. Follow up by talking about the doll or the little girl who has the doll to keep the conversation going. You might even tell her a story about a favorite doll you had when you were a little girl.
Encourage your child to talk about the things she observes around her. Before she can contribute to a conversation, she needs to develop the ability to make unprompted comments. But that's difficult for children with autism to do when they don't understand how others are thinking and feeling. The Hanen Centre in Canada, which focuses on speech and development in children, points out that talking to your child about other people's thoughts and experiences will help her learn the communication skills she needs to develop interpersonal relationships.
- Autism Society: Approaches to Improve Communication
- Autism Society: Conversation Basics
- Autism Society: Teaching Young Children with Autism to Ask Wh-Questions
- Autism Society: A Behavioral Approach to Teaching Language
- The Hanen Centre: How Parents Can Make the Biggest Difference in Helping Their Child Communicate
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