About 25% of people with autism speak very little or not at all. Don’t be disheartened by that statistic, says Autism Speaks. A decade ago, about half of all people with autism spoke little or not at all.
What caused the improvement in this area?
Researchers say early intervention programs help experts spot autism signs early. With identification, children get the therapies they need to build meaningful language skills.
As a parent of a child with autism, you can reinforce the language lessons your child learns in therapy. Here are seven techniques anyone can try at home with a child with autism.
1. Use Commands in Play
Experts define verbal skills with different metrics, but most look for a child’s ability to string at least two words together into one meaningful phrase. Researchers say about 36.4% of kids who left an early intervention program didn’t pick up this skill. As a parent, you can help.
Playtime makes for an exceptional educational opportunity for a child with autism. While you might struggle to convince your child to stay quiet and still at a desk, your child might happily work with you on swings, in the yard, or in a pool.
Look for ways to entice your child to dictate the terms of the play. Ask questions, such as:
- “What should we do next?”
- “Is it my turn?”
- “What do you want to do?”
- “Should we jump or run?”
Model your answers if your child isn’t responding. You could say something like: “What should we do next? Tell me: ‘We will run’ or ‘We will jump.'” Repeat, if needed, until your child picks an option and repeats it to you.
2. Practice Name Recognition
Many children with autism don’t turn their heads or otherwise respond when their names are spoken. It’s a hallmark of the disorder.
Experts say you can help build this skill at home with motivational training. To do this:
- Approach your child during an occupied moment.
- Say your child’s name.
- If your child doesn’t respond, give a gentle shoulder tap while repeating their name.
- If your child still doesn’t respond, use your hands to gently pull the child’s head in your direction while saying their name.
- At the first sign of a response, even if you had to prompt it, give a verbal reward. You could say, “Nice job of listening to your name!”
Repeat this often, and when your child has this game mastered, make it more complicated.
Use your finger to point to yourself while saying your name. Then, point to your child and say, “What is your name?” Prompt with the answer, if needed.
3. Play ‘I Spy’
Experts recommend taking a nature walk with young children to build vocabulary skills. That may not be safe for all children with autism, but even a few moments spent on the patio gives your child an opportunity to see something new.
Point to and name all of the things you see, including vehicles, plants, insects, and animals. Discuss size and color and shape. Narrate as long as your child is paying attention. Then, reinforce with ‘I Spy.’ Ask questions, such as:
- “Do you see something large and green? What is it?”
- “Do you see something small and wet? Where is it?”
- “Do you see something wide and brown? Where is it?”
Praise your child for responding to any question, and keep the queries coming if the response is nonverbal. For example, if your child points, follow up with, “What is that called?”
4. Label Emotions
Emotional literacy skills don’t always come naturally to children. They are taught by patient parents and teachers. Those lessons help children avoid tantrums and emotional outbursts, and they can help children grow into compassionate adults who understand what others both want and need.
Emotional literacy is especially important for people with autism. They often struggle to interpret body language, including facial expressions. They may long to understand what others want, and they may grow frustrated when their interpretations seem erroneous.
Work with your child to build these skills . You can:
- Talk about your emotions. When you’re happy, excited, angry, or sad, tell your child. Use simple phrases like “I am sad,” or “I am really happy.” Ensure that your child sees your face and body posture right at that moment.
- Discuss your child’s emotions. If you see a frown, ask your child, “Are you feeling upset?” If you see a big smile, say, “You seem really happy right now.” Entice your child to answer your statements with words like, “Yes, I am happy.”
- Use media prompts. Actors and actresses demonstrate a lot of emotion. Smiles, tears, frowns, and more are all emotional discussion points. Ask your child how the characters are feeling.
If your child is swept away by emotion and having a tantrum, it’s not the time to label emotions and talk through them. Look for opportunities to discuss emotions before they spiral out of control.
5. Read Together
Children of parents who read to them have heard over a million more words when they enter kindergarten than children without reading parents. For children whose parents don’t read to them, this word gap limits their vocabulary tremendously.
Stick with very short, colorful books. Read carefully and quietly, and point to each word as you read it. If the words relate to an image on the page, point to the elements within the graphic, and name them.
Some children with autism love the calm cadence of reading, and they will stay involved and engaged for as long as you’d like to read. Others grow restless after one page or two.
Soothe your child’s restlessness with the promise of a reward after the session. Say something like, “Let’s read one more page, and then we can go outside.”
Short sessions are fine, just repeat them often. Don’t force your child to read if the activity seems distressing.
If your child doesn’t seem open to reading, try again another day. If they still resist reading, wait a week and try introducing it again.
6. Sing Songs Together
Experts say some people with autism have a good memory for song lyrics and television jingles . Put that rote memory to use in targeted speech therapy sessions you hold at home.
Ask your child to sing along with a favorite song. Stop your child and ask for clarification on a lyric. “What word comes after love? Can you tell me?” Or ask your child to speak the words to the lyric to help you learn.
Singing can also help your child learn to modulate the speed and volume of their voice. Encourage your child to sing quietly during the soft parts of the song, and then open wide to sing loud at the climax.
Do that a few times, and you’ll have a useful intervention to use later. If your child speaks loudly in a quiet space, you can say, “Remember when we sang softly to the song yesterday? Let’s do the same thing with our voices now.”
7. Narrate Your Day
Involve your child in safe activities , experts recommend. Your child might be ready to help set the table for dinner, or you could water plants together. No matter what you do, keep a gentle conversation flowing.
- Names. Identify each tool you use in your work.
- Verbs. List as many words as you can think of for the steps you take.
- Sequences. Describe what you will do next.
Ask your child for input from time to time. Hold up an item, and ask, “What is this?” Stop in the middle of an action and ask, “What comes next?”
Do You Need an Expert’s Help?
Follow all of these suggestions, and you’ll work on your child’s verbal skills for a portion of every day. You might believe that’s enough to improve your child’s verbal skills to normal rates. Unfortunately, you must do more.
You love your child like no one else does, but you’re not a trained, licensed speech professional. You’re a parent. And some of the skills your child must learn should come from an expert.
Autism Speaks say about half of people who were nonverbal with autism as children grew into fluent adults. Targeted therapy makes that outcome more likely.
Often, experts can access tools you just don’t know about. For example, experts say some people with autism do best with alternative methods, such as sign language or speech output devices. You may not know how to access these tools, and you may not know how to train your child on them. A professional speech therapist would.
Don’t think of your home therapy sessions as a replacement for professional work. Instead, think of them as tools to enhance your child’s experience and provide the most benefit.
The work you do with your child at home can greatly enhance the work they do with a speech therapist in regular sessions. Together, with a professional’s help, you can make things better.
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