By Rachel Reynolds, MA, CCC-SLP, BCaBA, LaBA
For children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities, oral communication skills are often delayed. When a child is unable to communicate effectively with his or her environment, this often leads to frustration and (sometimes) challenging behavior. However, with proactive, language based interventions, children can make incremental progress. Here are some tips for encouraging language development when working with an early language learner.
Follow the child’s lead and interests!
We like to talk about the things that interest us! Also, these items of interest could be toys, food, or other items that the child may want to request throughout the day. Gather a large list of things the child enjoys and keep it handy. You can do an informal preference assessment by putting a few items out during the day (either to play with or to eat). See what she migrates to first. Rotate the items and see what rises to the top five or ten favorites. Whether it’s bubbles, a special car, goldfish crackers, or a ball, these are great items to remember and use for practicing communication interactions.
Children learn best from example and repetition. When you talk with an early language learner, you may need to modify your speech a bit to simplify the message. This doesn’t necessarily mean speaking in “baby talk”, but shortening your utterances to 1-3 words when working with a child who is currently using single words can be a good adaptation. For example, when playing with the ball, you can say, “Look! Ball!” “Green ball!” “Throw ball” “Catch ball”. Talk about what you are doing (“Mommy throws ball”) or what the child is doing (“Jane rolls ball”). If the child can use 1 or 2 word utterances consistently, help them extend their utterances. For example, if the child says “water”, you can say “Drink water!” or “Water in cup” or “Pour water”. For more information on how to model language, check out this SLP blog or more info from the American Speech Language Hearing Association on activities that encourage communication.
Wait! Then Acknowledge!
Early language learners often need more time to process what is said to them or to produce their own communication utterances. Give them time! If you have a selection of food in front of them, ask them “What do you want?” and then wait (sometimes up to 10 seconds) before asking or prompting again. When they do make a choice or use some form of communication (pointing, gesture, handing you a picture, speaking), acknowledge their communication with specific praise and the item they asked for (e.g., “Thanks for using your words to tell me ball! Here’s the ball!”).
Allow for baby steps!
The path to language learning sometimes goes in small steps. Many children with autism or another developmental disability may have apraxia, which is a neuromotor disability that impacts motor movements, including the production of speech sounds. It may be difficult for a child to say “teddy bear” but he can say “Bah!” and point to the bear. This may be the first step in the child’s communication. As she is able, encourage the addition of more speech sounds (e.g. Tah-bah or bah-bah for teddy bear). A speech language pathologist can work with your family to help you determine the best “baby steps” for your child’s language development. More info on Apraxia of Speech
Give them a voice!
Alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) can be very useful to some early language learners because it provides them with a means to communicate if oral speech is challenging or frustrating. AAC can often be a bridge to later oral communication. AAC can be low tech (pointing to pictures or objects) or high tech (using an electronic device). Working with a speech language pathologist who understands the strengths and weaknesses of different AAC systems is critical. Here’s more info from the American Speech Language Hearing Association on AAC.