Communication and autistic children
Communication skills are important for all children. These skills help children express their needs and wants. When children can do this, it helps them with behaviour, learning and socialising.
Autistic children have a range of communication skills and abilities. Some autistic children have very good communication skills, whereas others find it harder to relate to and communicate with other people. Also, some autistic children have difficulties developing language, find it difficult to understand or use spoken language, or have no language at all.
Autistic children often need support to learn and practise skills for communicating with other people.
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 autistic children communicate
Autistic children sometimes communicate differently from typically developing children. They might:
- use language differently
- use non-verbal communication
- communicate through behaviour.
Use of language
Autistic children might:
- mimic or repeat other people’s words or phrases, or words they’ve heard on TV, YouTube or videos. They repeat these words without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice. This is called echolalia
- use made-up words
- say the same word over and over
- confuse pronouns, referring to themselves as ‘you’ and the person they’re talking to as ‘I’.
When autistic children use language in these ways, they might be trying to communicate. But it can be hard for other people to understand what children are 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 they actually want one themselves. This is because when they’ve heard that question before, they’ve got a lolly.
Over time, many autistic children can build on these beginnings and learn to use language in more typical ways.
Autistic children might:
- physically manipulate a person or object – for example, a child might take a person’s hand and push it towards something they want
- point, show and shift gaze – for example, a child might look at or point to something they want and then shift their gaze to another person, letting that person know they want the object
- use objects – for example, a child might hand an object to another person to communicate.
Autistic children might 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 they need something, aren’t happy, or are 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 autistic children can help you understand why your child is behaving in certain ways.
Working on autistic children’s communication
It’s best to work on communication skills for autistic children gradually, by teaching skills that are just one step on from where your child is now.
You can start by watching your child carefully and noticing your child’s attempts to communicate. This will help you work out what level of communication your child is using right now and what step is best to teach next.
For example, if your child cries in the kitchen as a way of asking for food, it might be too hard for your child to learn to say ‘hungry’ or ‘food’. Instead, the next step could be teaching your child to point to or reach for the food. You could do this by modelling – that is, showing your child what to do by pointing at the food yourself. You could also help your child physically by guiding their hand to point to the food.
Or if your child communicates by pulling your hand towards the things they want, the next step could be using words or picture cards. You could model this – for example, by saying ‘teddy’ or using a ‘teddy’ picture card when your child pulls your hand towards their teddy.
When you’re working on your child’s communication skills, it can help to label items around your house with words, like ‘bickies’, ‘train’, ‘ball’, ‘brush’ and so on.
And it can also help if you praise your child each time they use the communication skill you’re working on.
If you want to work on your autistic child’s communication skills, it’s a good idea to get support from a speech pathologist or other autism professional. If your child is getting NDIS early intervention support or your child has an NDIS plan, you might be able to get funding for this support.
Making the most of autistic children’s attempts to 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 your child’s 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 their head in reply by modelling this for your child.
- Give your child enough time to understand and respond to questions.
- Practise communicating with your child on topics or things they’re interested in.