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Using language and communicating with other people can be a challenge for many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But with help and understanding, your child can develop communication skills.

Communication and autism spectrum disorder: the basics

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find it hard to relate to and communicate with other people. They might be slower to develop language, have no language at all, or have significant difficulties in understanding or using spoken language.

Children with ASD often don’t understand that communication is a two-way process that uses eye contact, facial expressions and gestures as well as words. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when helping them develop language skills.

Some children with ASD develop good speech but can still have trouble knowing how to use language to communicate with other people. They might also communicate mostly to ask for something or protest about something, rather than for social reasons, such as getting to know someone.

How well a child with ASD communicates is important for other areas of development, such as behaviour and learning.

Communication is the exchange of thoughts, opinions or information by speech, writing or nonverbal expression. Language is communication using words – written, spoken or signed (as in Auslan).

How children with ASD communicate

Sometimes children with ASD don’t seem to know how to use language, or how to use language in the same ways as typically developing children.

Unconventional use of language
Many children with ASD use words and verbal strategies to communicate and interact, but they might use language in unusual ways. For example, they might:

  • have ‘echolalia’, which means they mimic words or phrases without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice
  • use made-up words
  • repeat words
  • confuse pronouns and refer to themselves as ‘you’, and the person they are talking to as ‘I’.

This is often an attempt to get some communication happening, but it doesn’t always work because the listener can’t understand what the child is trying to say.

For example, children with echolalia might learn to talk by repeating phrases they associate with situations or emotional states, learning the meanings of these phrases by finding out how they work. A child might say ‘Do you want a lolly?’ when she actually wants one herself. This is because when she’s heard that question before, she’s got a lolly.

Over time, many children with ASD can build on these beginnings and learn to use language in ways that more people can understand.

Nonverbal communication
These ways of communicating might include:

  • physically manipulating a person or object – for example, taking a person’s hand and pushing it towards something the child wants
  • pointing, showing and shifting gaze – for example, a child looks at or points to something he wants and then shifts his gaze to another person, letting that person know he wants the object
  • using objects – for example, the child hands an object to another person to communicate.

Undesirable behaviour
Many children with ASD behave in difficult ways, and this behaviour is often related to communication.

For example, self-harming behaviour, tantrums and aggression towards others might be a child’s way of trying to tell you that he needs something, isn’t happy or is really confused or frightened.

If your child behaves in difficult ways, try to look at situations from your child’s perspective to work out the message behind your child’s behaviour.

How and why communication develops in children with autism spectrum disorder

Children’s reasons for communicating are fairly simple – they communicate because they want something, because they want attention, or for more social reasons.

Typically developing children can usually communicate for all these reasons, and their ability to communicate in a ‘multifunctional’ way comes at about the same time. But it’s different in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who develop the ability to communication in these ways over time.

First, they use communication to control another person’s behaviour, to ask for something, to protest or to satisfy physical needs.

Next comes communication to get or maintain someone’s attention – for example, a child might ask to be comforted, say hello and or even show off.

Last, and most difficult, are the communication skills children need to direct another person’s attention to an object or an event for social reasons.

Your child’s level of communication

Is your child communicating to ask for things? Is she asking for comfort or saying hello? Is she showing things to you, like her drawings or a plane in the sky?

For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), communication develops step by step, so it’s important to work step by step with your child.

For example, if crying in the kitchen is the only way your child asks for food, it might be too hard for him if you’re trying to teach him to say ‘food’ or ‘hungry’. Instead, you could try working on skills that are just one step on from where he is right now – for example, reaching towards or pointing to the food that he wants. Once he starts reaching or pointing, you can work on getting eye contact.

You can help your child develop these skills by praising her when she looks at you and by labelling items, such as ‘bickies’.

If you’re looking at strategies and therapies to improve your child’s communication, knowing what level of communication your child is functioning at can help you choose the best way to move forward.

Making the most of your child’s attempts to communicate

You can expect communication from your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), even if it’s not the same as the way other children communicate. You can also help by:

  • using short sentences – for example, ‘Put your shirt on. Now put your hat on’
  • using less mature language – for example, ‘Playdough is yucky in your mouth’
  • exaggerating your tone of voice – for example, ‘Ouch, that water is VERY hot’
  • giving encouragement and prompting your child to fill the gap when it’s his turn in a conversation – for example, ‘Look at that dog. What colour is the dog?’
  • asking questions that need a reply from your child – for example, ‘Do you want a sausage?’
  • making enough time during an activity to give your child the chance to respond
  • encouraging eye contact – for example, ‘Here’s your lolly. That’s right – up here’.
Eye contact is a key part of nonverbal communication, and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often need to be taught it. Your child needs a real reason for looking at you, so you can do things like always holding objects you know your child wants right in front of your eyes. Keep doing this until your child automatically looks up when she wants something.
  • Last updated or reviewed 20-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements

    This article was developed in collaboration with Anneke Jurgens, Monash University, Victoria.