Language is a critical part of childhood development. Language enables communication and social relationships. Language can be a difficult skill for children with autism. They might struggle with increasing their vocabulary. They might struggle with stringing multiple words together, like in the phrases “want help” or “go bye bye.” They might struggle with using language to communicate with others.
As a parent, there are a lot of things you can do to encourage language development at home. At first, this may seem overwhelming. After all, speech is one skill that is impossible to prompt. But think about language as a broader skill than simply the words that are said. Language is a way of understanding information and concepts. It is a way of expressing information and concepts. It is a way to relate. These are all skills you are probably already doing at home all the time without even thinking about it.
Here are five ways to encourage language development at home:
Children with autism are often known for their love of repetition. This could be with words, routines, stories, games, or actions. But the truth is that all children respond positively to repetition. Repetition is an important way that children learn new skills.
You can use repetition to encourage language development. Repeat the words your child says. Expand on those words by using them in sentences. Repeat favorite activities, songs, and stories as much as your child wants. This may seem tedious to you. But it is helping your child understand the connections between language and the world around them. You can also use repeated activities to encourage use of language to request. For example, your child may love it when you sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider over and over again. Gradually teach them to request “more” or “again” each time you do the song.
2. Word Games
Word games are a fun and easy way to encourage new words at home. Word games can be adjusted to suit your child’s developmental level. A very simple word game is to get out an assortment of blocks with letters and objects on the sides. Lift the blocks up to your chin one by one and ask your child what the object is. Demonstrate saying the word for them. Give them the block and stack it.
A more complex word game is for children who have some familiarity with letters or numbers. Take turns going around the house and finding objects that start with each letter. Or find objects that can be found in groups of one, two, three, and so on.
3. Gestures and Sound Effects
One way to make language more fun is to pair words with gestures and sound effects. For example, a child may learn to say “moo moo” for a cow before they learn to say the word “cow.” Common gestures to pair with language include pointing, nodding and shaking head, and basic signs like “more” and “all done.” You can get as creative as you like by using other signs and motions. A great way to find ideas for gestures and motions to pair with language are websites with videos like Cosmic Kids Yoga.
When in doubt, read a book. It can be hard to brainstorm ways to encourage language once your child has tired of all your typical routines. Revisit books that may not have been motivating for your child a month ago. Point out and label images on the pages as you read. Introduce new book series by checking one out from the library first.
5. Close Enough is Really Close Enough
When your child tries to copy a word that you said, praise them even if it sounded garbled. They may say something that doesn’t sound like the word at all. If you know or can guess the meaning, go with it! Accept the effort as the real deal. This will help build your child’s motivation to use language.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.