Autism communication strategies

Autism communication strategies are techniques that help your autistic child develop their language and communication skills. Language impairment in communication is one of the main diagnostic criteria for a child with autism, specifically a delay in or total lack of spoken language. Many children may have difficulties not only expressing themselves but also understanding what other people say. Adults may think that the child is just ignoring them but in reality, the child may not understand what the adult is saying. Imagine going to a foreign country with people speaking a language that you do not understand and having no means of figuring out what the people are saying. If someone says, “Hey you, come here” in their language, would you respond? If you don’t understand what they are saying you probably would not respond. This is how your child might be feeling.

Let Leafwing professionals educate you and your child to develop the language skills that will help guide your child to reach their full potential.

Autism communication strategies

Interventions to improve communication with autistic children

A Speech Therapist or Pathologist is the lead professional in the assessment of an individual’s understanding and use of language and can provide information about you or your child’s level of language development. They can also provide support planning for intervention, and advise of which strategies can be the best use to support the development of communicative skills.

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that can improve social, communication, and learning skills through reinforcement strategies. Many experts consider ABA to be the gold-standard treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental conditions.

ABA therapy programs are effective in treating children with autism because they create very structured environments where conditions are optimized for learning. Over time, these very structured environments are systematically changed so that the environment mimics what a child could expect if and when they are placed in the classroom.

Autism communication strategies: Visual supports

Visual supports are concrete cues that help communicate and build language skills. This can incorporate the use of symbols, photos, written words, and objects to help children with autism to learn and understand language, process information, and communicate.
We take for granted the different ways we communicate daily which include:

    • Language: The way we represent information – what words mean and how we put them together.
      • Receptive – refers to how your child understands language.
      • Expressive – refers to how your child uses words to express himself/herself.
    • Speech: A verbal means of communicating – using sounds to make words.
    • Non-verbal methods: gesture, facial, expression, eye contact, etc.
    • Pragmatics: The way in which individuals use language in social situations. It includes following the ‘unspoken’ rules of conversations, for example, taking turns.

Many children on the autism spectrum respond well to visual information. Visual information can be processed and referred to over time, whereas spoken communication is instant and disappears quickly.

Visuals can involve communication books or boards that use images and/or words on cards to help the individual learn the word and its meaning. The child can point to the image when they want to communicate. For example, if the child is thirsty, they can point to an image of a glass of water. As the child learns more symbols and words, they can use them to create sentences and to answer questions. Others can also use the images to communicate with the child. This is known as the Picture Exchange Communication System and can be used in the development of intentional and functional communication.

Another autism communication support tool is known as a visual or picture schedule. This helps individuals learn the steps of a routine, like getting ready for bed. A series of pictures show the steps in order and over time they learn each step.

Furthermore, visual schedules can be used to show a person on the spectrum what is happening next or show when there is a change in routine. As people on the spectrum generally don’t like change, this can help them prepare for a change and cope with it more easily. This enables the language surrounding change to be more easily understood and allows individuals to refer back to schedules throughout the task and throughout their day.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)
Autism communication strategies: Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), helps individuals who cannot talk or are very hard to understand. AAC means all of the ways that someone communicates besides talking. People of all ages can use AAC if they have trouble with speech or language skills. This provides another way to help them communicate other than verbally. AAC includes:

  • Sign language
  • Gestures
  • Pictures, photos, objects, or videos
  • Written words
  • Computers, tablets, or other electronic devices

AAC can help children with autism and can even assist with developing spoken communication. A lot of people wonder if using AAC will stop someone from talking or will slow down language development. This is not true—research shows that AAC can actually help with these concerns! People who use AAC can also learn how to read and write.

Speech generation devices either play pre-recorded words via a switch or button or sound out text that is typed into them. Using the previous example, a child who is hungry can press the ‘food’ picture button and the device will say, ‘I want to eat.’
While these tools can be used to replace speech, they can also be used to help a child develop speech. They do this by helping the child to recognize sound patterns and can be used with visual aids to build language skills.

These systems can also help children learn words as they begin to associate the sound and picture with each other. They also help by slowing down communication, giving the child more time to process the information and avoid becoming overloaded.

Autism communication strategies: Guidelines for nonverbal autistic children

No matter where your child falls on the spectrum for autism, they have the ability to communicate in some manner. Here are some simple guidelines to consider when trying to help your child to communicate with you as well as with others.

  • Encourage play and social interaction. All children learn through play, and that includes learning the language. Interactive play provides a delightful chance for you and your child to communicate. Play games that your child enjoys. Incorporate playful activities that promote social interaction. For example singing, reciting nursery rhymes, and gentle roughhousing. During your interactions, crouch down close to your child so your voice and face are closer to them, increasing the chance of them looking at you.
  • Imitate each other. Copying your child’s sounds and play behaviors will encourage more vocalizing and interaction. It also encourages your child to copy you and take turns. Make sure you imitate how your child is playing – so long as it’s a positive behavior. For example, when your child rolls a car across the floor, then you too roll a car across the floor. If they crash the car, you crash your car too. Be sure not to imitate inappropriate behavior like throwing the car!
  • Focus on nonverbal communication. Gestures and eye contact can build a foundation for language. Encourage your child by modeling and responding to these behaviors. Exaggerate your gestures. Use both your body and your voice when communicating – for example, by extending your hand to point when you say “look” and nodding your head when you say “yes.” Use gestures that are easy for your child to copy. Examples include clapping, opening hands, reaching out arms, etc. Respond to your child’s gestures: When they look at or point to a toy, hand it to them or take the cue for you to play with it. Similarly, point to a toy you want before picking it up.
  • Give time for your child to talk. It’s natural for us to want to fill in the missing words when a child doesn’t quickly respond. It is important to give your child lots of opportunities to communicate, even if they are not talking. When you ask a question or see that your child wants something, pause for several seconds while looking at them enthusiastically. Watch for any sound or body movement and respond promptly. The promptness of your response helps your child feel the power of communication.
  • Simplify your language. Be literal and obvious in your choice of language. Say exactly what you mean. Speak in short phrases, such as “roll ball” or “throw ball.” You can increase the number of words in a phrase one your child’s vocabulary increases.
  • Follow your child’s interests. Rather than interrupting your child’s focus, follow along with words. Use simple words about what your child is doing. By talking about what engages your child, you’ll help them learn the associated vocabulary.
  • Consider assistive devices and visual supports. Assistive technologies and visual supports can do more than take the place of speech. They can foster its development. Examples include devices and apps with pictures that your child touches to produce words. On a simpler level, visual supports can include pictures and groups of pictures that your child can use to indicate requests and thoughts.

Remember, the more concise and simpler the instruction, the more successful the child will be. It is important to note that the simplicity or complexity of language used should be based on the child’s language repertoire at that particular time. Over time, and with success, simple and concise instructions will be elaborated and more language will be part of their communication.

Autism puzzle
Autism communication strategies: how ABA therapy can help

ABA therapy is effective through the identification and targeting of skill development goals. ABA therapy will typically address skill deficits across several domains. These domains will vary and depend on the individual needs of the learner.

As behavior analysts, it is our responsibility to only administer ABA-based treatment programs that have been proven to be effective given a specific difficulty. This is called evidence based practices. The specifics of a treatment program will vary from one person to another, but the foundations of treatment programs are the same. A foundation derived from sound, empirically proven methods repeatedly implemented in the applied setting over time.

Listen to:

The Advantages of Applied Behavior Analysis (Podcast Episode)


Frequently asked questions about ABA therapy

What is ABA Therapy used for?

ABA-based therapy can be used in a multitude of areas. Currently, these interventions are used primarily with individuals living with ASD; however, their applications can be used with individuals living with pervasive developmental disorders as well as other disorders. For ASD, it can be used in effectively teaching specific skills that may not be in a child’s repertoire of skills to help him/her function better in their environment whether that be at home, school, or out in the community.  In conjunction with skill acquisition programs, ABA-based interventions can also be used in addressing behavioral excesses (e.g., tantrum behaviors, aggressive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors). Lastly, it can also be utilized in parent/caregiver training.

In skill acquisition programs, a child’s repertoire of skills is assessed in the beginning phase of the services in key adaptive areas such as communication/language, self-help, social skills, and motor skills as well.  Once skills to be taught are identified, a goal for each skill is developed and then addressed/taught by using ABA-based techniques to teach those important skills. Ultimately, an ABA-based therapy will facilitate a degree of maintenance (i.e., the child can still perform the learned behaviors in the absence of training/intervention over time) and generalization (i.e., the learned behaviors are observed to occur in situations different from the instructional setting).  These two concepts are very important in any ABA-based intervention.

In behavior management, the challenging behaviors are assessed for their function in the beginning phase of the services. In this phase, the “why does this behavior happen in the first place?” is determined. Once known, an ABA-based therapy will be developed to not just decrease the occurrence of the behavior being addressed, but also teach the child a functionally-equivalent behavior that is socially-appropriate.  For example, if a child resorts to tantrum behaviors when she is told she cannot have a specific item, she may be taught to accept an alternative or find an alternative for herself. Of course, we can only do this up to a certain point—the offering of alternatives.  There comes a point when a ‘no’ means ‘no’ so the tantrum behavior will be left to run its course (i.e., to continue until it ceases).  This is never easy and will take some time for parents/caregivers to get used to, but research has shown that over time and consistent application of an ABA-based behavior management program, the challenging behavior will get better.

In parent training, individuals that provide care for a child may receive customized “curriculum” that best fit their situation.  A typical area covered in parent training is teaching responsible adults pertinent ABA-based concepts to help adults understand the rationale behind interventions that are being used in their child’s ABA-based services.  Another area covered in parent training is teaching adults specific skill acquisition programs and/or behavior management programs that they will implement during family time.  Other areas covered in parent training may be data collection, how to facilitate maintenance, how to facilitate generalization of learned skills to name a few.

There is no “one format” that will fit all children and their families’ needs. The ABA professionals you’re currently working with, with your participation,  will develop an ABA-based treatment package that will best fit your child’s and your family’s needs. For more information regarding this topic, we encourage you to speak with your BCBA or reach out to us at [email protected].

Who Can Benefit From ABA Therapy?

There is a common misconception that the principles of ABA are specific to Autism. This is not the case. The principles and methods of ABA are scientifically backed and can be applied to any individual. With that said, the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association consider ABA to be an evidence based practice. Forty years of extensive literature have documented ABA therapy as an effective and successful practice to reduce problem behavior and increase skills for individuals with intellectual disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children, teenagers, and adults with ASD can benefit from ABA therapy. Especially when started early, ABA therapy can benefit individuals by targeting challenging behaviors, attention skills, play skills, communication, motor, social, and other skills. Individuals with other developmental challenges such as ADHD or intellectual disability can benefit from ABA therapy as well. While early intervention has been demonstrated to lead to more significant treatment outcomes, there is no specific age at which ABA therapy ceases to be helpful.

Additionally, parents and caregivers of individuals living with ASD can also benefit from the principles of ABA. Depending on the needs of your loved one, the use of specified ABA techniques in addition to 1:1 services, may help produce more desirable treatment outcomes. The term “caregiver training” is common in ABA services and refers to the individualized instruction that a BCBA or ABA Supervisor provides to parents and caregivers. This typically involves a combination of individualized ABA techniques and methods parents and caregivers can use outside of 1:1 sessions to facilitate ongoing progress in specified areas.

ABA therapy can help people living with ASD, intellectual disability, and other developmental challenges achieve their goals and live higher quality lives.

What does ABA Therapy look like?

Agencies that provide ABA-based services in the home-setting are more likely to implement ABA services similarly than doing the same exact protocols or procedures. Regardless, an ABA agency under the guidance of a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst follows the same research-based theories to guide treatment that all other acceptable ABA agencies use.

ABA-based services start with a functional behavior assessment (FBA). In a nutshell, a FBA assesses why the behaviors may be happening in the first place. From there, the FBA will also determine the best way to address the difficulties using tactics that have been proven effective over time with a focus on behavioral replacement versus simple elimination of a problem behavior. The FBA will also have recommendations for other relevant skills/behaviors to be taught and parent skills that can be taught in a parent training format to name a few. From there, the intensity of the ABA-based services is determined, again, based on the clinical needs of your child. The completed FBA is then submitted to the funding source for approval.

One-on-one sessions between a behavior technician and your child will start once services are approved. The duration per session and the frequency of these sessions per week/month will all depend on how many hours your child’s ABA services have been approved for—usually, this will be the number recommended in the FBA. The sessions are used to teach identified skills/behaviors via effective teaching procedures. Another aspect of ABA-based services in the home-setting is parent training. Parent training can take many forms depending on what goals have been established during the FBA process. The number of hours dedicated for parent training is also variable and solely depends on the clinical need for it. If a 1:1 session is between a behavior technician and your child, a parent training session or appointment is between you and the case supervisor and with and without your child present, depending on the parent goal(s) identified. Parent training service’s goal is for you to be able to have ample skills/knowledge in order for you to become more effective in addressing behavioral difficulties as they occur outside of scheduled ABA sessions. Depending on the goals established, you may be required to participate in your child’s 1:1 sessions. These participations are a good way for you to practice what you have learned from the case supervisor while at the same time, having the behavior technician available to you to give you feedback as you practice on those new skills.

As mentioned in the beginning, no two ABA agencies will do the same exact thing when it comes to providing ABA services; however, good agencies will always base their practice on the same empirically-proven procedures.

How do I start ABA Therapy?

In most cases, the first item required to start ABA therapy is the individual’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis report. This is typically conducted by a doctor such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a developmental pediatrician. Most ABA therapy agencies and insurance companies will ask for a copy of this diagnosis report during the intake process as it is required to request an ABA assessment authorization from the individual’s medical insurance provider.

The second item required to start ABA therapy is a funding source. In the United States, and in cases where Medi-Cal or Medicare insurances are involved, there is a legal requirement for ABA services to be covered when there is a medical necessity (ASD diagnosis). Medi-Cal and Medicare cover all medically necessary behavioral health treatment services for beneficiaries. This typically includes children diagnosed with ASD. Since Applied Behavior Analysis is an evidence based and effective treatment for individuals with ASD, it is considered a covered treatment when medically necessary. In many cases, private insurance will also cover ABA services when medically necessary, however in these cases, it is best to speak directly with your medical insurance provider to determine the specifics of the coverage and to ensure that ABA is in fact, a covered benefit. Additionally, some families opt to pay for ABA services out-of-pocket.

The next step to starting ABA therapy is to contact an ABA provider whom you are interested in working with. Depending on your geographic location, ABA agencies exist in many cities across the United States. Your insurance carrier, local support groups, and even a thorough online search can help you find reputable and properly credentialed ABA agencies near you. Our organization, LeafWing Center, is based in southern California and is recognized for aiding people with ASD achieve their goals with the research based on applied behavior analysis.

Once you have identified the ABA provider with whom you wish to work, they should help you facilitate the next steps. These will include facilitating paperwork and authorizations with your funding source. Once the assessment process begins, a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or qualified Program Supervisor should get in contact with you to arrange times in which interviews with parents/caregivers and observations of your loved one can be conducted. This will help in the process of gathering important clinical information so that with your collaboration, the most effective treatment plans and goals can be established for your loved one. This process is referred to as the Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and is elaborated on in different blog posts on our website. With regard as to what can be expected once ABA therapy begins, please read our blog post titled: When You Start an ABA program, What Should You Reasonably Expect from Your Service Provider?

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