Language development in autistic children
All children start developing language from the day they’re born. This happens through relationships and play with other people.
Autistic children might need support to develop language skills. This is because they’re often focused on details in the world around them. As a result, they might miss opportunities for learning language skills, like understanding what people say to them and expressing themselves using words.
For example, a 3-month-old baby who’s distracted by a ceiling fan is less likely to tune into a smiling and tickling game with their parents. By 9 months, if the baby still isn’t tuning into parents, they’re less likely to point at things they want to share with parents. The baby is less likely to listen to their parents as they name things. This means the baby misses these chances to learn words.
Creating opportunities for autistic children to use language
To develop language, autistic children need regular, meaningful and motivating opportunities to use and practise language and language skills.
You can create meaningful and motivating opportunities for your child to use language as part of everyday activities together. For example, you could put your child’s favourite toy out of reach so your child needs to ask for it. Or you could take turns opening picture book flaps and talking about or showing each other what you’ve found. It’s important to pause long enough for your child to say what they’re thinking or feeling.
As your child learns, you can gradually make activities harder. For example, you could start with your child just saying ‘ball’ when they want you to give them a ball. The next step might be to say, ‘Push the ball’.
And then you can work on specific skills like greeting people. For example, your child could start with greeting Mum with a wave or a high five when Mum gets home from work. The next step could be saying ‘Hi’. Then you could work on transferring the skill to saying ‘Hi’ when Grandma comes to visit.
The best way to encourage children’s speech and language development is to talk together about things that interest your child. This builds your child’s language and your relationship at the same time. Our article on language development explains how this works. You can adapt the tips to suit your child’s level of development and communication.
Using play to help autistic children learn language skills
Play is how children learn, including how they learn language. By playing games with your child or making play part of your everyday activities, you can create opportunities for your child to develop their language.
For example, if you’re doing a jigsaw with your child, you could hand your child a piece of the puzzle when they ask for it.
Modelling language use for autistic children
You can show your child how to respond to or ask for something by using modelling. Modelling language involves speaking and using facial expressions and gestures when you’re with your child. It also means giving your child examples of how to use language at a level that’s right for them.
For example, you could comment on what you’re doing, like saying ‘open’ as you open the car door. You can also comment on what your child is doing, like saying ‘stuck’ as your child tries to open a zipper on a bag.
If your child is trying to say something, you can model the words that you think your child needs, like ‘help’ as your child holds up a packet of food that they can’t open.
It’s best to use phrases that contain 1-2 more words than your child is currently using in their own speech. For example, if your child isn’t yet talking, model sentences of 1-2 words. If your child is speaking in sentences of 2-3 words, repeat what they say but add a couple more words to show your child how to build bigger sentences.
Responding positively to autistic children’s language use
You can encourage your child to keep using language by responding positively when they do. Positive responses include giving your child the next piece of the puzzle when they make a request. Or you can smile and comment to let your child know you’re interested when they show you a toy.
Autistic children communicate in various ways. For example, they might use gestures, Key Word Sign, PECS or other types of augmentative communication. You can build on your child’s communication preferences to help them develop language, if this is right for them. For example, if your child is pulling your hand towards an object they want, you can add language and model how your child could ask for the object.