Still among our most popular advice posts, the following article was co-authored by Autism Speaks's first chief science officer, Geri Dawson, who is now director of the Duke University Center for Autism and Brain Development; and clinical psychologist Lauren Elder.
Researchers published the hopeful findings that, even after age 4, many nonverbal children with autism eventually develop language. (Read our news story here.)
For good reason, families, teachers and others want to know how they can promote language development in nonverbal children or teenagers with autism. The good news is that research has produced a number of effective strategies.
But before we share our “top tips,” it’s important to remember that each person with autism is unique. Even with tremendous effort, a strategy that works well with one child or teenager may not work with another. And even though every person with autism can learn to communicate, it’s not always through spoken language. Nonverbal individuals with autism have much to contribute to society and can live fulfilling lives with the help of visual supports and assistive technologies.
So here are our top seven strategies for promoting language development in nonverbal children and adolescents with autism:
1. Encourage play and social interaction. Children learn through play, and that includes learning language. Interactive play provides enjoyable opportunities for you and your child to communicate. Try a variety of games to find those your child enjoys. Also try playful activities that promote social interaction. Examples include singing, reciting nursery rhymes and gentle roughhousing. During your interactions, position yourself in front of your child and close to eye level – so it’s easier for your child to see and hear you.
2. Imitate your child. Mimicking your child’s sounds and play behaviors will encourage more vocalizing and interaction. It also encourages your child to copy you and take turns. Make sure you imitate how your child is playing – so long as it’s a positive behavior. For example, when your child rolls a car, you roll a car. If he or she crashes the car, you crash yours too. But don’t imitate throwing the car!
3. Focus on nonverbal communication. Gestures and eye contact can build a foundation for language. Encourage your child by modeling and responding these behaviors. Exaggerate your gestures. Use both your body and your voice when communicating – for example, by extending your hand to point when you say “look” and nodding your head when you say “yes.” Use gestures that are easy for your child to imitate. Examples include clapping, opening hands, reaching out arms, etc. Respond to your child’s gestures: When she looks at or points to a toy, hand it to her or take the cue for you to play with it. Similarly, point to a toy you want before picking it up.
4. Leave “space” for your child to talk. It’s natural to feel the urge to fill in language when a child doesn’t immediately respond. But it’s so important to give your child lots of opportunities to communicate, even if he isn’t talking. When you ask a question or see that your child wants something, pause for several seconds while looking at him expectantly. Watch for any sound or body movement and respond promptly. The promptness of your response helps your child feel the power of communication.
5. Simplify your language. Doing so helps your child follow what you’re saying. It also makes it easier for her to imitate your speech. If your child is nonverbal, try speaking mostly in single words. (If she’s playing with a ball, you say “ball” or “roll.”) If your child is speaking single words, up the ante. Speak in short phrases, such as “roll ball” or “throw ball.” Keep following this “one-up” rule: Generally use phrases with one more word than your child is using.
6. Follow your child’s interests. Rather than interrupting your child’s focus, follow along with words. Using the one-up rule, narrate what your child is doing. If he’s playing with a shape sorter, you might say the word “in” when he puts a shape in its slot. You might say “shape” when he holds up the shape and “dump shapes” when he dumps them out to start over. By talking about what engages your child, you’ll help him learn the associated vocabulary.
7. Consider assistive devices and visual supports. Assistive technologies and visual supports can do more than take the place of speech. They can foster its development. Examples include devices and apps with pictures that your child touches to produce words. On a simpler level, visual supports can include pictures and groups of pictures that your child can use to indicate requests and thoughts. For more guidance on using visual supports, see Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports Tool Kit.
Your child’s therapists are uniquely qualified to help you select and use these and other strategies for encouraging language development. Tell the therapist about your successes as well as any difficulties you’re having. By working with your child’s intervention team, you can help provide the support your child needs to find his or her unique “voice.”
Autism Speaks continues to fund research on therapies that promote language development as well as supports and services that can improve communication and quality of life for nonverbal individuals. Explore these and other projects supported by our community of volunteers and donors by using this website’s Grant Search. You, too, can help fund autism research by making a donation here.
For more strategies that promote language and nonverbal communication through daily activities, see An Early Start for Your Child with Autism, by Sally Rogers, Geraldine Dawson and Laurie Vismara.