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.
It can be harder for autistic children to learn and use language than it is for typically developing children.
Autistic children might have difficulty learning language because they tend to show less interest in other people in the first 12 months of life. They might be more focused on other things going on around them. Because they might not need or want to communicate with other people as much as typically developing children do, they don’t get as many chances to develop their language skills.
For example, a three-month-old baby who is distracted by a ceiling fan is less likely to tune into a smiling and tickling game with their parents. By nine months, if the baby still isn’t tuning into parents, the baby is 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 build vocabulary.
Supporting language development for autistic children
Creating reasons to use language
If autistic children have reasons to use language, they’re more likely to try using it.
You can create reasons for your autistic child to use language as part of your 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 the activities harder. For example, you could start with your child just saying ‘ball’ when they want you to give them the ball. The next step might be saying ‘push the ball’.
Play is how children learn, including how they learn language. By playing games with your child, or just by making play part of your everyday activities, you can create opportunities for your child to develop 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 with eye contact.
You can show your child how to respond or ask for something by using modelling. Modelling involves speaking and using facial expressions and gestures in front of your child. It also means giving your child examples of what you want your child to learn, 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 1-2 word sentences. If your child is speaking in 2-3 word sentences, repeat what they say but add a couple more words to show your child how to build bigger sentences.
Building your child’s skills
To develop language, your child needs regular, meaningful and motivating opportunities to practise particular language skills.
For example, you could work on a skill like greeting people. Your child could start with greeting Mum with eye contact when Mum gets home from work. The next step could be eye contact and a cuddle, then eye contact, a cuddle and saying ‘hi’. Then you could work on transferring the skill to saying ‘hi’ when Grandma comes to visit.
Rewarding language use
You can reward your child when they listen, understand or express themselves. You could do this by using a natural consequence like giving your child the next piece of the puzzle when they make a request, or smiling and making a comment to let your child know you’re interested when they show you a toy.
It doesn’t mean giving your child rewards like sweets or stickers.
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 for typically developing children. You can adapt the tips to suit your child’s level of development and communication.
Interpreting your child’s attempts to communicate
Autistic children might not communicate in the same ways as typically developing children. Communication in autistic children might be nonverbal, or they might use language in unusual ways or behave in difficult ways. For example, autistic children might point, show objects, or repeat phrases. Watching your child carefully will help you notice your child’s attempts to communicate and work out what your child is trying to communicate.
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.
Language differences in children with ASD
Autistic children 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 problems with understanding or using spoken language. They might not use gestures to make up for the problems they have with words.
Autistic children tend to communicate mostly to ask for something or to protest. They’re less likely to communicate for social reasons, like sharing information.
They also often have difficulty knowing when and how to communicate with people in socially appropriate ways. For example, they might not make eye contact or let another person take a turn in a conversation.
To communicate effectively, children need to:
- understand what other people say to them (receptive language)
- express themselves using words and gestures (expressive language)
- use their receptive and expressive language skills in socially appropriate ways.