This is the first in a bi-monthly series written by voices within the autism community that we want to amplify. Jade Page is a UK-based mom to two kids with autism. She does an incredible job of collecting resources on supporting children and families impacted by autism, as well as helping other parents navigate the paperwork associated with accessing autism support in the UK. Check out Jade at The Autism Page and on Facebook, Twitter and Insta.
Speech, language and communication are key areas for most autistic children. For both my children, the first clear sign that they were different was delayed speech and language. Though the particular challenges vary, most autistic people do have difficulty with language and/or communication. It’s common that both using and understanding communication is challenging for autistic children.
Children with autism often struggle to understand communication. Some reasons for this can be because:
- Language used is too loud or too fast to be processed
- Vocabulary is too complex
- Literal interpreting what is said
- Some people have difficulty understanding non-verbal cues and social communication understanding, particularly in unfamiliar contexts
Often, communicating is also a challenge for children with autism. Some qualities that often define these communication challenges are:
- Speech that is too loud or too quiet
- Limited speech or no speech
- Echolalia (repetition)
- Formal or unusual tone inflection
- One-sided conversations
- Limited shared /joint attention
ATTENTION: A KEY TO DEVELOPING COMMUNICATION
Children need to develop attention to learn and communicate. Is your child’s attention fleeting, rigid or single channeled? I was more focused on the fact that my children were not speaking than their general lack of attention. It had to be pointed out to me that if we didn’t work on attention first, we would continue to struggle with communication. Attention difficulties can mean that your kids:
- Are easily distracted
- Have difficulty shifting attention
- Are not motivated to give attention
- Often can seem single channelled
- Attend predominantly to their own agenda
- Have attention that varies significantly depending on situation
To work on attention you need to find strategies that are exciting and motivating to your child. It can be hard to understand why particular things are motivating, this post on reinforcers and motivating toys gives some helpful ideas. But in general, try to be the most exciting thing in the room. Some ways to do this are to: strategically reduce other distractions, use topics of interest to your child, and employ visual tools. A great way to support attention development is using Attention Autism. This is a therapy designed for autistic children and is a great way to work on attention.
Children need to develop attention to learn and communicate. Is your child’s attention fleeting, rigid or single channeled? I was more focused on the fact that my children were not speaking than their general lack of attention. It had to be pointed out to me that if we didn’t work on attention first, we would continue to struggle with communication.
SUPPORTING SPEECH & COMMUNICATION DEVELOPMENT
There are tons of different ways to help support your child’s speech and communication development. Different strategies work for different kids and families, but below I outline some areas that many parents find key to addressing communication challenges.
SPEAK TO BE UNDERSTOOD
- What do your child(ren) understand? Make sure you are communicating on their level. Say less, speak slowly,use visuals and stress the words that are most important. I have a post that includes more tips on developing speech and language.
USE VISUAL AIDS
- Autistic children are often visual learners and using visual clues can make a big difference to understanding. My eldest needs longer processing time so visuals allow him to do that in his own time. Visuals can also reduce stress and create more independence. I have a post all about using visual aids. You may also want to look at Social Stories which are a great way to use visuals too communicate with a child. We’ve recently started using Tiimo, an assistive technology app that provides visuals that go along with a daily schedule across devices. This has been helpful for communication and creating a good routine.
READING & COMMUNICATION
- Reading is a great activity that supports both attention & communication.. If they struggle to sit and read a book with you, engage with the story in a different way such as play and on tv, and then go back to the book. I have a few ideas in my post about reading with children.
- Introducing choices can be difficult for some children. To keep it simple, start with just two items to choose from. Use the objects or visuals so the child is clear on the choice offered. You can offer an item you know the child wants (like chocolate for example) versus a choice they don’t want (like a sock) to help build choice making skills.
- You can get a referral to see a speech therapist from your Health Visitor, GP, Nursery or school if you’re living in the UK. It was our speech therapist that referred my children for an ADOS assessment which led to receiving an autism diagnosis. It also led to my son taking up alternative communication
AUGMENTATIVE AND ALTERNATIVE COMMUNICATION (AAC)
- Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) are communication methods that replace speech or writing. The two most commonly used alternative communication methods with autistic children are Makaton and the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).
- If your child has speech and communication difficulties they will need to be supported at school (if that’s a possibility – unfortunately the system is not set up for everyone to thrive). For more information on getting the right support at school see paperwork & education.
NOTE ON CHALLENGING BEHAVIOUR & COMMUNICATION
Often challenging behaviour like lashing out, screaming, crying, biting and many others come down to communication issues. If a child has sensory processing issues but is unable to communicate, it can be very distressing and confusing for the child and those around them. Equally, being unable to communicate one’s emotions and/or needs can be very challenging. Working out the cause of the challenging behaviour is usually a key and I have a post on using the star method to help identify reasons for challenging behaviour. You may also want to try using rewards to encourage your child.
If autism impacts your family, you’ll likely spend a fair bit of time working on communication. There are lots of therapies that can be used to support speech development such as Intensive Interaction. While there’s no on-size-fits-all strategy for people with autism who have challenges communicating there are LOTS of different tools - I hope this article helped point you in the direction of some that might work for you!
Are you interested in knowing more about Tiimo app and how Tiimo can assist neurodiverse people?
Read our user story with Ria, mom to 9-year-old Marc, who at the age of 4 was diagnosed with autism. From the day he was born, Ria knew that there was something special about him.