Author: Joy Fan, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) 

with Ronni Rowland, Writer

Communication struggles are frustrating for people of all ages. For young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the adults in their lives, this can be compounded by deficits in social, linguistic, and play skills. “But these children can make great progress with their communication skills when teachers and caregivers engage in a few simple strategies, ” says Joy Fan, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with ELG.

Here are 4 ways to foster social communication in young children on the autism spectrum:

1. Follow the child’s lead.

It’s easier and more motivating to talk about the things we enjoy! So let the child take the lead and choose an activity. “Join in with the play and comment on it, but don’t ask questions or give commands,” advises Joy. “Wait for the child to engage or communicate with you.” Try to be face-to-face as often as possible to provide frequent opportunities for interaction.

2. Increase “attending” time.

Attending – sitting still, listening, and responding – is one of the first skills young children need to learn, and it can be more challenging for children with autism. Joy suggests the following Discrete Trial Training (DTT) activity to teach attending to children that have not yet developed the skill:

  • Spread 10 small pieces of food, such as orange slices, on the table.
  • When you nod and smile, let the child take a piece.
  • When you do not nod and smile, block the child’s attempt to take a piece.
  • Vary the amount of time the child needs to wait.

For children who have some attending skills and can follow simple instructions, build on the momentum from the child’s positive behavior. If they are struggling, give them three to five easier tasks they have already mastered to do before presenting the target demand. Giving them a cycle of success before moving on makes them more likely to stay focussed.

Most importantly, have fun during the activity!

3. Model and expand language.

When you model language around the child’s interests, you create an intrinsically motivating environment for communication. For example, if a child enjoys playing with toy cars and says, “Play car,” you can expand this to, “Yes, we are playing with a blue car.”

Use Joy’s tips to maximize understanding:

    • Simplify language.
    • Speak slowly.
    • Stress important words.
    • Be repetitive.
    • Use visual/gestural cues.

4. Teach expressive language.

Expressive language skills relate to speaking and writing, and include vocabulary, grammar, and putting sentences together to explain, story-tell, etc. Joy says, “to teach these skills, prompt language that is slightly above the level the child currently uses independently. For example, if the child is only using single words, model language that includes single and two-word phrases. When the child masters two-word phrases, move on to simple phrases.”

Keep it light-hearted and playful. Be patient, but also persistent. By frequently engaging in these activities, children’s communication skills will flourish at home and at school.