Improving Communication and Interaction in Children with Autism

If you have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or know someone who does, you know that communication with the child is a constant issue for many, and it is a skill that takes many years to perfect. Many parents are unsure how to best support their child’s development, and even how best to interact, speak, and play with the child. If you are unfamiliar with communication problems in children with ASD, read this: Communication Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder


Photo by  Sue Zeng  on  Unsplash

Photo by Sue Zeng on Unsplash

In order to improve communication skills in children with ASD, you must first understand the different stages of communication development. Every child will develop at a different pace, so don’t compare your child to others you know, or to any set timeline. Celebrate your child’s accomplishments and be supportive through the hardships, and do not forget to take care of yourself. You will be a happier and more effective carer because of it.

Understanding Communication Problems associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Types of Communication

Pre-intentional Communication

Pre-intentional communications are things a child with ASD says without intending to affect the people around them. This is used to calm or focus oneself, or as a reaction to a stimulating experience.

Intentional Communication

Intentional Communications are made when the child wishes to communicate with another person, either to express needs or ask questions. The step from pre-intentional communication to intentional communication is a large one, and is a sign of progress in children with ASD.

The 4 Stages of Communication

1) ‘Self’ stage

Children in the ‘Self’ stage will be self-absorbed, using mostly pre-intentional communication and generally avoiding eye contact and interaction.

2) ‘Want’ stage

Once a child realizes his or her actions have an effect on other people, he/she is i the ‘Want’ stage. They may communicate basic wants or needs by pulling towards things and attempting to get others’ attention.

3) ‘Two-way’ stage

A child in the ‘Two-way’ stage will start asking for things, and may echo language they’ve heard to ask for specific things. They will shift their gaze more and might point to things they want to show the adult.

4) ‘Conversation’ stage

A child with ASD in this stage will have become an effective communicator, able to hold a simple conversation in a comfortable environment. New or stressful environments may cause the child to revert to repetitive phrases, or ignore the turn-taking normal in conversation.

How Adults and Parents Can Help Develop Communication Skills

Become a Teacher

When a child with ASD has trouble communicating, especially in the ‘Self’ stage, it is tempting to want to do everything for them — tying shoes, getting them water, etc. — however, this does not give the child a chance to prove that they can do something, Asking twice if they need help (and waiting a bit for a response) before helping them is a good idea to help develop conversation skills and give the child a chance to help themselves.

Encourage Interaction with Other Kids

Encourage your child to play and talk to other kids. Remember, any interaction, even an angry or sad one, will serve as practice, and will help the child acclimate to the social world we live in.

Slow Down

Caring for a child with ASD can be stressful, and during important activities (eating breakfast, getting ready to go, etc.) you may be tempted to rush your child. Slowing down and giving time for your child to recognize and process what is happening, as well as reflect on what has happened may improve situational awareness and conversation skills.

Step Back

Once a child with ASD has developed more proficient speaking skills, it can be helpful to take a step back from being your child’s advocate, and to let them speak for themselves. Let your child initiate conversations, and do not forget to give them feedback after an important interaction that might teach your child a lesson.

Create Opportunities

Remember, practice makes perfect. When you see an opportunity for your child to practice communication, step back and let them initiate that communication. When no opportunities arise, create them yourself. Give your child an opportunity to make requests and ask questions, instead of automatically filling them in. When you meet someone new, assuming your child is at least somewhat comfortable in these situations, let them make the introductions instead of you.

Encourage Requests

Make yourself useful to encourage requests. This can be done in many ways, which depend on your child’s specific needs and abilities. For example, place a favorite toy or candy on a high shelf, where they can see it, but cannot reach it. Another idea is giving the child a complex toy, and waiting for them to request your help in operating it. Encouraging your child to ask you for help will foster a healthy interaction between you and the child.

Follow Their Lead

While leading activities is sometimes necessary, letting your child take the reigns occasionally can have numerous benefits, including practicing communicating, making decisions, and planning. During activities, let your child do what they want to do, and even copy or imitate them, to coax a 2-way interaction. They may begin to imitate you in response, and you can then add whatever you wish to the exchange. This idea extends to ending an activity too. Letting your child signal when they wish to end an activity will help develop their communication skills, but if they are still working on speech, you must pay attention to the signals your child is sending (pulling away, grimacing, etc.) to understand when they wish to stop. If they have trouble finding the words, you can say them (i.e “Had enough?” or “All done?”) to facilitate speech association.

How to Help a Child with ASD Understand What is Said to Them

There are many situations in which a child with ASD will not understand what is happening or being said to them, and even if they appear to follow directions, they may just be acting based on what they’ve done before. Comprehension, understanding what is said, is a complex skill that requires a lot of time and practice to improve.

Many autistic children experience sensory overload, where stimuli that would seem normal to us is way too much for a child with ASD. This can be extremely detrimental to the learning process, and causes many subsequent issues for children that experience it. It is important to note here, though, that every child is different, and will experience the world differently. Keep in mind your child’s specific issues, and what has worked for them in the past, when reading this section.

Simple and Slow

If a child with ASD is new to communicating, using single words is the easiest way to communicate and be understood. A pointing gesture or associated object used concurrently with the word will help cement the meaning in the child’s memory. Speaking slowly and deliberately ensures that you’ll be heard and not misunderstood, and that you won’t overwhelm the child.

Sign Language

A child with less proclivity to learning speech may benefit from a Total Communication approach, using both sign language (ASL, BSL, and many others) and spoken language concurrently. This allows the child to experience both forms simultaneously, highlighting key word meanings, and developing language comprehension.

Meet the author

Cognixion develops software that nonverbal people can use to communicate 10x faster than any other solution on the market. Our award-winning AAC app, Speakprose, is available now in iTunes. If you are interested in learning more about Speakprose, visit our App Store page and download Speakprose and let us know what you think.