Learn to Speak Your Autistic Child's Language
Autistic children tend to respond to visual cues rather than spoken words. Here's how to better communicate with a child who has few or no verbal skills.
By Marie Suszynski
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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When a child with autism has no or few verbal skills, people may think he’s not a good learner. But many children with autism, even those with no verbal skills, are actually very good learners — if you know how to speak their language.
How Autism Affects Communication
The definition of autism is a disorder that in part affects a child’s ability to communicate, but just how severe the communication problems are varies from child to child. While some children with autism can’t speak, others have a large vocabulary and can talk in-depth about things.
Most children with autism can pronounce words, but they have trouble using the words in the right ways and they don’t always grasp the meaning of sentences. They may repeat a question such as “Do you want a snack?” rather than answer the question. Other autistic children may be able to talk about things they like, such as trains or animals, but they don’t have interactive conversations about them.
Fortunately, communication doesn’t always have to include speech. Here’s how to communicate with an autistic child who has few verbal skills.
Understand How Your Child’s Brain Works
Children with autism think in terms of what ideas look like, says Ellyn Lucas Arwood, EdD, professor in the School of Education at the University of Portland in Oregon who specializes in language and special education. When someone is communicating with them, they see the shape of the mouth and the shape of the body and record it. “It’s frustrating for them because every time we move, we create new shapes,” she says.
The more you can communicate with children visually, the better the outcome:
- Write out sentences.Instead of trying to teach your autistic child how to speak, Dr. Arwood has parents write. For instance, a parent can write the sentence, “It’s time to go to bed,” have the child read the sentence, and then speak the sentence to him. Your child can also write back responses.
- Draw pictures.Arwood also recommends drawing pictures that go with the written words because then kids can see what’s expected of them. You don’t have to be an artist, she says, just use stick figures and a characteristic for each person. If you’re a mom who wears glasses, draw one figure with glasses for you and maybe another with a baseball hat or a ponytail — something your child associates with himself or herself — to designate the child. Draw pictures that represent the entire day, she says. You can draw a typical day of getting ready for school, going to school, coming home and having time for play and homework, then getting ready for bed, and going to bed. Laminate the page and allow your child to check off each activity as he finishes it, Arwood says. When you have a day with a new event, such as a doctor’s visit, add a new picture at the top to let your child know what will be happening.
- Let your child communicate visually with you.When your child wants to say something to you, let him do what he feels comfortable with, whether it’s pointing to what he wants, writing, using sign language, or even typing it. Arwood worked with one autistic child who was able to communicate using an old-fashioned typewriter because she could see the keys strike the page.
- When you speak, use visual language.If your child has language skills, you may not have to write out sentences or use drawings, but you may see more positive results if you speak as if you’re creating a movie. This technique, which Arwood calls “oral cartooning,” works because an autistic child can see a picture of what you want her to do and is able to follow your instruction. Here's an example: If you want your child to sit down to eat breakfast, instead of saying, “Hurry up and get in here,” say, “I want to see your bottom in the chair so you can look at your cereal,” Arwood says. Remember that children take instructions literally, so if you say, “Get on your jacket,” an autistic child may put his jacket on the floor and stand on it.
- Teach family members and babysitters.The more success your child has with communication, the more smoothly things will go, so teach family members and babysitters how to best communicate with your child. “It can be the difference between having a babysitter or not,” Arwood says.
- Encourage your child’s school to do the same.It may be a challenge to get educators to write or draw to communicate with your child, even in special education classes, Arwood says. If your child's school needs persuading, you may want to go in yourself and show your teacher how well your child responds to it.
Although your child may not be speaking or having conversations the way you do, every child with autism can be an effective communicator.
Video: Speech Language Pathology 2 : Teaching Concepts With Pictures for Those With Autism
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