As a therapist and communication expert for over 20 years, it’s tempting to unleash a tidal wave of information on how you can help increase communication between you and your autistic child at home using not only words but sign language, picture cards and other helper tools or devices.
For much more in-depth lessons in communication, please check out (7 Simple Steps to Increase Speech at Home mini-series).
Step 1. MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE
- Start at the beginning and make small steps forward. It can be tempting to jump ahead and make goals that include sentences and back and forth conversation but you need to let your autistic child’s natural ability be your starting point.
If they are only making sounds, or only pointing at what they want, then START there.
Worry about full sentences later. Right now, focus on what small steps you can make to increase communication abilities. Work on sounds turning into syllables and then watch as syllables turn into words.
Step 2. JOINT ATTENTION is just as important.
While you do have to have your child’s attention while speaking to them, parents often put too much focus on direct eye contact. Typically children on the autism spectrum will avoid eye contact and because the behavior is deemed “abnormal” by our society, we try to “fix” it. Looking directly into someone’s eyes is actually quite intimidating while attempting new learning. Focus instead on getting them to look in your direction. You can do this by using a small toy or treat that your child loves. Hold the toy next to your face to draw their attention there while you talk. It’s perfectly fine if they are just looking in your general direction or even at your nose. It doesn’t need to be direct eye contact.
Step 3. TAKING TURNS can be FUN!
Conversation is all about taking turns. First you are the listener and then you are the speaker. Taking turns is typically another obstacle for children on the spectrum. So no matter what stage of communication you are at with your child, learning to take turns can be very beneficial.
I like to use a board game such as Connect Four, where there is both a visual and audible cue that signifies each turn. Say, “it’s mommy’s turn” while you place a checker and then say “it’s _______ (fill in your child’s name) turn” when it is time for them to place a checker. There are many different games you could use for this. You could also use tossing a ball back and forth. Go with what ever works best for your child, a preferred object or activity will be more motivating for them.
These are just a few examples of how you can help your child communicate at home. Remember communication takes time and is easier when there is less intense pressure. Remember to stay calm, take a break or counting to ten in your head when you feel frustration coming on is a must. Create a positive environment for learning and watch your autistic child complete new communication tasks.