Teaching Basic Communication to Your ASD Child

Get tips for making communication with your autistic child easier.
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Teaching Basic Communication to Your ASD Child

The first skill your child should learn is how to communicate. Some children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are verbal and are able to communicate effectively; others may have enough speech to at least get their basic needs met. Many have no speech whatsoever, or had speech and then lost it.

Not being able to communicate is very frustrating and can lead to major tantrums and disruptive behaviors. Teaching some basic communication skills can alleviate a lot of this frustration. PECS is a wonderful system for helping children to communicate. At the basic level it teaches the child that by giving you a picture of an item that he wants, he will get that item. Without professional help, you can teach your child to give you or point to pictures that represent what he wants or needs. This will not inhibit him from learning to speak and is a good practical starting point to help you at home.

For example, start by cutting out the labels of food or drink items your child enjoys. When you first introduce this concept, have another person help you. The first step is to pick a moment when you know he wants a particular item. Make sure you have a picture of that item. Hold up the item, and have the other person physically help the child to hand you the picture. In exchange you can immediately give him the desired item. This will only work if he really wants that item, and if he can't reach it without your help. You can add more pictures, perhaps laminate them, and put them somewhere easy for the child to find—perhaps stuck to the refrigerator or on the kitchen table. You can keep adding pictures so that he can request to go outside, have a ride in the car, watch TV, listen to music. If you wish to learn more, look on the PECS website (www.pecs.com) to find out when a workshop is planned for your area.

Teaching Your Child to Wait

Another skill your child will need to master to make home life easier is waiting. At home, he needs to wait for someone to help him, he needs to wait for dinner, he needs to wait to go out. In the community he needs to learn to wait at the doctor's, wait at the supermarket checkout, line up to get on a bus or a plane. Learning the concept of waiting (you will get what you want eventually) will help to lessen the number of tantrums.

Make or find a picture that will represent "waiting" to your child. We have used a simple line drawing of a person sitting in a chair, with the face of a clock next to it. Write "waiting" clearly on the card. Laminate the picture and place a piece of Velcro somewhere on it. Next, make sure you have pictures of whatever items your child usually requests or wants immediately (favorite food, toy, ride in the car), backed with Velcro, and a seconds timer. The next time he requests an item put the relevant picture on the Velcro on the waiting card, then turn the timer on for a few seconds. Say, "We are waiting" or "Waiting" and point to the card. When the timer goes off, immediately fulfill his request.

Some children need to start with a wait of only three seconds, and work on up from there. Some can start at ten seconds or more. Once your child has learned to wait for those few seconds, add more. You know your child, so you will have to gauge where to start. Eventually, he will understand that he will get what he wants, it is only a matter of time.

Creating Schedules

Another helpful tried and trusted method is schedules. Posting pictures or words about the day's activities in the kitchen or by the front door can be helpful for a child having difficulty making sense of the world around him. Knowing what will happen and in what order is comforting. You must be sure to explain verbally what the words and pictures mean, otherwise children who are auditory learners may not make sense of the schedule.

Scheduling also helps those who have sensory problems in some areas to get ready for a not so pleasant onslaught of sensory input. For example, I have noticed that if my son is forewarned that he will be visiting the dentist or the hairdresser, he appears to have an easier time of it, as if he has prepared himself mentally. If I have forgotten to put it on the schedule earlier in the day, and then show him the picture just before leaving the house, he appears to be anxious and unhappy, often refusing to get in the car, which he usually loves.

If your child is very young and home all day, you may find it helpful to establish a routine of activities that will fill part of his day and use a schedule to show what that routine is (eating, getting dressed, free play inside, napping, TV).

Being Consistent

For any behavior changes that you are trying to make with your child, it is important that you follow through and be consistent, and that the other family members do so as well. If you introduce a way to communicate and then do not respond to his attempts to approach you, you will be doing your child a disservice. If you teach him to wait, but do not give him the item he is waiting for, he will not learn the concept, and will be even more confused.