Early Communication Autism
Delayed communication in children with autism is one of the most challenging aspects of the condition. In this article, we explain different autism-related verbal and nonverbal challenges. We also list a variety of ways in which you can support the development of your child’s communication skills.
Communication Challenges in Children with Autism
Most neurotypical children start talking around the age of one. Early social communication skills, such as smiling, making eye contact, babbling, and making gestures, develop even before the child learns the first words. In children on the autism spectrum, however, these skills are typically delayed.
Verbal communication in children with autism
Children with autism exhibit a wide range of language abilities. While some children are fully articulate, especially when it comes to their preferred topics of interest, others rely on the use of sign language, gestures, visual supports, or technology to communicate.
Speech patterns in children with autism
Children with autism often have unique ways of speaking, for example:
- Limited vocabulary
- Repetitive language
- Difficulty with articulation
- Referring to themselves in the third person
- Using language that is overly formal or technical
- Tendency to take language literally
- Difficulty understanding and using abstract language like metaphors
- Speaking in a monotone voice, with little variation in tone or inflection
- Repeating sounds or phrases (echolalia)
Echolalia refers to repeating other people’s words or sentences. This is one of the most common characteristics of communication in children with autism spectrum disorder. Echolalia can be immediate, when the child repeats words right after hearing them, and delayed, when words are repeated out of context at a later time.
Echolalia is an effective way for children with autism to develop communication and language understanding. In addition to supporting vocabulary and syntax development, echolalia provides an opportunity for children on the spectrum to interact and engage with others.
Non-verbal communication in children with autism
Children with autism are often unable to use gestures, for example pointing to an object, to give meaning to their speech. They may also struggle with understanding and interpreting nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice and facial expressions. Without meaningful gestures and nonverbal skills like eye contact and turn taking, many children become frustrated in their attempts to communicate, which may lead to challenging behaviors.
Four Stages of Communication
The Hanen language program defines four different stages of communication in children:
- The own agenda stage
- The requester stage
- The early communicator stage
- The partner stage
The stage of communication depends on the child’s ability to interact with others, in addition to their level of understanding and communication patterns.
The own agenda stage
During this stage, children appear uninterested in others and prefer to play alone. Communication is pre-intentional, which means that children express their wants and needs mainly through their behavior.
The requester stage
At the request stage, children start to understand that their actions may have an effect on others. For example, they may communicate by pulling you towards a toy or an object they want you to see.
The early communicator stage
Interactions at this stage are longer and more intentional. The child may look at or point to objects that they want to show you, repeat your words, and slowly start to engage in a two-way interaction.
The partner stage
The child now uses speech and is capable of carrying out a simple conversation. However, communication may still be limited to familiar settings and exclude non-verbal communication methods.
With early intervention and appropriate support, parents, teachers, and therapists can help children with autism improve their communication skills. Here’s how you can best support your child.
Supporting Communication Development
Communication delays in children with autism may lead to frustration and isolation. Below, we list a number of targeted interventions that can assist your child in improving communication skills.
Use single words
As your child starts talking, use single words to communicate. For example, tell them the name of their favorite toy and repeat the word once they reach for it.
Use simple expansions
Gradually add more information to help your child expand his or her vocabulary. For example, if your child says “car”, you can respond by saying “green car”.
Give the child a reason to communicate
Make sure to create many opportunities for communication and interaction in various situations throughout the day.
Allow enough time for communication
Give your child enough time to process information and to think about what they are going to say.
Follow the child’s lead
Follow your child’s lead instead of giving instructions. The child will be more likely to pay attention to the activity and will learn how to make choices on their own.
Being face-to-face with the child will allow them to observe the facial expressions that you use while communicating.
Imitate your child’s words and actions
If you repeat what your child says or does, it is more likely that you will get their attention and that they will imitate you as well. This is also the perfect opportunity for you to introduce new words and gestures that your child can copy.
Use gestures and visual supports
Use gestures and visual supports such as photos, drawings, cue cards, and schedules to help increase your child’s understanding of the spoken language.
Encourage communication through songs
Start singing a song with your child and then pause to see if they can sing the next part.
Use role play
Role play is an effective way to model social interaction. This way, your child can explore a variety of possible scenarios and learn what would be an appropriate thing to say in different situations.
Praise your child and reward any attempts to communicate in order to increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.
ABA therapy is an effective method for improving early communication skills in children with autism in areas such as:
- Hearing and responding to the words of others (receptive language)
- Identifying and labeling objects (descriptive language)
- Requesting a desired object (manding)
- Reading words (textual language)
- Conversational speech (intraverbal language)
Speech therapy can help children with autism improve their verbal, nonverbal, and social communication. The main goal of speech therapy is to help the child communicate in more functional ways, by improving the following skills:
- Producing clear speech sounds
- Modulating tone of voice
- Responding to questions
- Matching emotions with the correct facial expression
Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC)
Some children diagnosed with autism find that using pictures or technology to communicate is easier and more effective than speaking. The most common alternative augmentative communication methods include:
- Sign language
- Picture exchange communication system (PECS)
- iPads or tablets
- Speech output devices (Dynavox)
A speech-language pathologist can help you identify which AAC method is right for your child and teach them how they can use it to communicate.
The early development of communication skills is critical for children with autism. Language delays may have a negative impact on their ability to interact with others and navigate the world around them. By identifying the main communication challenges, parents, teachers, and therapists can provide targeted interventions and support to help the child develop stronger communication skills.
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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