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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, like getting to know someone.

How well a child with ASD communicates is important for other areas of development, like 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 autism spectrum disorder communicate

Sometimes children with autism spectrum disorder (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, echolalia is common in children with ASD. This is when children mimic words or phrases without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice. They might repeat someone’s words straight away, or much later on. They might also repeat words they’ve heard on TV, YouTube or videos as well as in real life. 

Children with ASD also sometimes:

  • use made-up words, which are called neologisms
  • say the same word over and over
  • confuse pronouns and refer to themselves as ‘you’, and the person they’re talking to as ‘I’.

These are often attempts to get some communication happening, but they don’t always work because you 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 she 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. Our article on managing challenging behaviour in children with ASD explains how to work out what’s triggering 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 all these ways 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 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

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, like ‘bickies’.

Is your child communicating to ask for things? Is he asking for comfort or saying hello? Is he showing things to you, like his drawings or a plane in the sky? If you’re looking at strategies and therapies to improve your child’s communication, knowing what level of communication your child is using right now 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.

Here are some ways you can encourage communication with your child:

  • Use short sentences – for example, ‘Shirt on. Hat on’.
  • Use less mature language – for example, ‘Playdough is yucky in your mouth’.
  • Exaggerate your tone of voice – for example, ‘Ouch, that water is VERY hot’.
  • Encourage and prompt your child to fill the gap when it’s her turn in a conversation – for example, ‘Look at that dog. What colour is the dog?’
  • Ask questions that need a reply from your child – for example, ‘Do you want a sausage?’. If you know your child’s answer is yes, you can teach your child to nod his head in reply by modelling this for him.
  • Make enough time for your child to respond to questions.

Eye contact
Eye contact is a key part of nonverbal communication. It helps other parts of communication, like being able to notice another person’s facial expression and take emotion into account in your communication.

Here are some ideas to encourage eye contact from your child:

  • Hold an object your child wants in front of your eyes so your child looks at your eyes as she looks towards the object.
  • Hold onto an object your child wants for a few extra seconds before letting your child take it. This encourages your child to look towards your face when he doesn’t get the object immediately.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 01-10-2017
  • Acknowledgements

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