Increasing Communication Opportunities for Your Child with Autism
Written by Rebekah Howard, RBT, Graduate Student- JBK Mount Juliet
Communication is a fundamental aspect of human interaction, allowing us to express our thoughts, feelings, and needs. However, for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developing effective communication skills can be a complex journey. While specialized therapies and interventions are important, one powerful strategy that can make a significant difference is embedding communication opportunities throughout the day. In this post, we will explore the importance of this approach and provide practical tips for parents, caregivers, and educators to embed communication opportunities into their child’s day!
Understanding Autism and Communication Challenges
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects individuals in various ways, with one common challenge being communication. This challenge may manifest in various forms, such as:
- Limited verbal communication.
- Difficulty with social communication.
- Delayed speech and language development.
- Receptive language challenges.
It is important to note that not every child with autism is the same, and while some children may have difficulties in one area relating to language, they may excel in others (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2020).
Embedding Communication Opportunities
Embedding communication opportunities is a way to create an environment where communication is both encouraged and integrated into already established daily routines and activities. This approach utilizes several evidence-based practices from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) that makes it very effective:
- Naturalistic learning: Children with autism often benefit from learning in natural settings. By embedding communication opportunities into daily routines, we allow them to practice their communication skills in real-world situations. Naturalistic intervention, or Natural Environment Training, is an evidence-based practice commonly used in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA).
- Motivation: Knowing and using a child’s interests and preferences can increase their motivation to communicate. When children are engaged and interested, they are more likely to communicate effectively. Embedding a child’s preferred interests into teaching opportunities, such as trains or cartoon characters, helps learning be joyful and fun! At JBK, embedding a child’s favorites into our teaching strategies is a strategy utilized in all our ABA therapy sessions.
- Consistency: By reinforcing skills and encouraging communication habits in a consistent, reliable, and routine way, it creates many more opportunities to practice the skill. Consistency with routines and teaching opportunities also helps busy parents better recognize and remember when to create those learning opportunities in their daily routines with their children!
Practical Tips for Embedding Communication Opportunities
- Follow the child’s lead: Pay attention to the child’s interests, and engage in activities or topics they enjoy! Play alongside them, label what they are doing while they play, and encourage them to imitate your words and actions! Practice taking turns with their favorite items, and prompt them to request for their toy back from you. Play is a great way for kids to learn and practice their communication. Incorporate activities like taking turns, reading, and pretend play to encourage more communication (The Hanen Centre, n.d.).
- Expand on their communication: A child may use gestures, sounds, or words to communicate- whichever their communication method build upon that! For example, if they point to a favorite toy, respond by naming the toy and asking questions about it (Douglas & Gerde, 2019). Make fun noises and sounds related to the toy, such as “Vroom!” for a car or “Boing!” for an animal figure jumping up and down. Encourage them to imitate your expanded phrases and gestures.
- Visual supports: Visual aids, such as picture communication boards, can be helpful in giving children with autism opportunities to communicate. Pictures can help children make choices and express their needs. Visuals help make abstract language more concrete, so many children with autism will use visuals as a first step to understand communication exchanges with others- and then transition to using their words vocally! Pictures are often a tool to help them understand the connection between words and objects.
- Model communication: Demonstrate appropriate communication skills by using clear and simple language, and encourage the child to imitate and respond! If your child uses pictures or a voice output device, “speak” in their language, and use pictures and the device to model to them how to ask for things they want or need.
- Create predictable routines: Establishing predictable daily routines can help kids anticipate communication opportunities while also reducing anxiety and increasing participation. For example, following the same routine each morning and for bedtime will help your child know what is expected of them, and they are more likely to complete those routines independently! Think of a few communication opportunities you’d like to work on during those routines, such as requiring your child to ask for “help” to open a cabinet or to request a “Bear” before bed. Start small, and increase the number of communication opportunities throughout the day as you and your child make progress!
- Provide reinforcement: Offer positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, when the child attempts to communicate- regardless of the form of communication used. Any attempt or approximation is success! In order for a child to learn a new skill, reinforcement must be used- this increases the likelihood of them using that skill again in the future!
Embedding communication opportunities throughout the day for children with autism is a powerful strategy that fosters language development, social communication skills, and overall well-being. By creating an environment that encourages and supports communication in naturalistic settings, parents, caregivers, and educators can unlock the potential of children with autism and help them thrive in a world that values and celebrates their unique abilities. Remember that every child is unique, so tailoring your approach to their individual needs and preferences is key to success!
Douglas, S. N., & Gerde, H. K. (2019). A strategy to support the communication of students with autism spectrum disorder. Intervention in School and Clinic, 55(1), 32–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053451219833021
The Hanen Centre. (n.d.). Creating more opportunities for interaction with children on the autism spectrum. Retrieved September 26, 2023 from https://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Creating-More-Opportunities-for-Interaction-with-C.aspx
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. (2020, April 13). Autism spectrum disorder: Communication problems in children. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/autism-spectrum-disorder-communication-problems-children