Guest post from Carrie Clark, CCC-SLP
I speak with many parents who know that their child needs extra support in communication skills but they either cannot afford additional speech therapy services or cannot find them in their area. These parents want to help their children acquire and practice new speech and language skills but they don’t know what to do or where to start. This can be even more difficult if you have a child with autism as therapies for children with autism can be very different from those used on children without autism. This article will provide you with several home speech therapy activities for children with autism that you can do with your child to improve his or her communication skills.
Activities for Children with Autism #1: Use Sign Language
Sign language can be an amazing tool for children with autism who are not yet speaking or who are not speaking very much. Many children with autism have difficulty speaking to others but are able to communicate if you give them another means. Sign language can be just that means and it doesn’t require any financial commitment such as a communication device that may cost thousands of dollars. A systematic review of research on the use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) (sign language is a type of AAC) by Schlosser and Wendt in 2008 showed the following results:
“This review found no evidence that AAC intervention hinders speech production in children with autism or PDD-NOS and suggests that AAC may result in increased speech production.”
Here’s how you can start using sign language at home to help your child:
- When talking to your child, speak in short phrases (1-2 words) and sign some of the words while you say them. You can go online to www.ASLPro.com to learn sign language signs for common words for free. I recommend choosing a small number of words to learn and practice at first based on words that would be interesting to your child, such as favorite foods and toys.
- When your child wants something that you have been showing him the sign for, show him the sign again and encourage him to imitate the sign for it. If he does, go ahead and give him what he wants. If he doesn’t, take his hands and help him form the sign. Then, reward him as if he had said the word out loud.
- Continue to encourage your child to use the sign for what he wants. Help him make it at first and then try to back off and let him make the sign on his own.
- Once your child is using several signs to communicate, encourage him to say the first sound of the word that goes with that sign as well. You can do this by saying the sound while making the sign to show your child.
** Make sure you do this while your child is already engaged with you (usually because he wants something you have or wants you to perform a certain action, like tickling or hugging him). If you try to do this when he’s not interested in engaging, it will just become a battle. For more tips on using sign language, visit my page here!
Activities for Children with Autism #2: Turn off the Screens and Open a Book
There are many fabulous educational video games and applications that you can play with your child to increase various skills. However, human interaction and communication is one skill that cannot be taught to your child through a video game or video. It is crucial for your child with autism that he spend a good amount of his day interacting with other people without any screens on. Make sure your child is awarded plenty of time without a screen every day. Use these opportunities to engage in fun activities with your child like playing outside or reading a book. Book-reading has been shown to be one of the most effective tools for improving speech and language skills in young children. No amount of educational video games can replace the benefits of reading a book with another human. I will make one exception to this “limit screen-time rule” and that is if your child is using a communication device such as a talker that has a screen. If your child is using the screen to interact with other people (such as pushing a button that speaks a message to the listener), then he is allowed as much screen time with that program as he wants. That screen becomes his voice and it is a tool for human interaction, not a hindrance.
** For more ideas on using book-reading to encourage language development, read my article on book-reading.
Activities for Children with Autism #3: Work Speech and Language Into Daily Routines
Did you know you can work on speech and language during your daily routines? You don’t need to find an extra 30 minutes in your day to devote as “speech and language” time. You can work on speech and language while you’re doing chores, running errands, getting ready, etc. Here are some ideas of how you can work speech and language into any activity:
- Talk about what you’re doing and what your child is doing. Provide your child with all of the words associated with that task.
- Talk about the order that you’re doing things in. You can talk about what you do first, next, and last.
- Have your child make choices and request using words or sentences (whichever your child is working on). You can also have your child imitate the sign language signs for things to request them if you are using sign language.
- Violate your child’s expectations. Do something totally out of routine and unexpected to see if your child says something to correct you. For example, give him cereal and milk but no spoon.
- Have your child use language to make a plan for what he will do next or during the rest of the activity or day.
** For specific ideas of how to work speech and language into daily routines like getting ready, going to bed, or meal times, check out my daily routine activity pages here.
Activities for Children with Autism #4: Get Down on the Floor and Play with Your Child
Another great thing you can do to improve interaction skills with your child with autism is to get down on the floor and play with him! Your child may not appear to be playing any games that you’ve ever heard of and he might not be inviting you to play but you can still get down to his level and include yourself in his play. Start by simply imitating his actions and doing what he does. This will let him know that you’re there to join, not to command. Once he’s comfortable with you being there, you can start introducing new ideas and see if he will imitate you. Let your child lead the play and decide what to play with. Follow your child’s lead and use his interests to teach him new skills. For example, if your child loves lining up cars, let him line them up and then count them as you touch each one. Or, label the colors as he lines them up. Even if he doesn’t repeat you or do this on his own, it’s still good to expose him to those skills and language when he’s comfortable and playing with things he enjoys.
Activities for Children with Autism #5: Specifically Teach Social Rules
For most children, watching social interactions and observing how adults interact with others is enough for them to learn the rules of social communication. However, your child with autism will most likely have trouble understanding these unspoken rules of social interaction by observation alone. We as adults often don’t even realize that these rules exist until someone violates one. Then, we notice. For example, there are rules about how close you can stand to someone during various social interactions, how much eye contact you should make, how loud you should speak, the types of things you should say, and how to take turns during a conversation. Your child may be missing all of these. Instead of hoping your child will pick it up from observation, you must specifically teach your child these rules. Here’s how you can do this:
- Observe which social rules your child seems to be breaking. Watch him with other children. What does she do (or not do) that makes her stand out? (For example, your child stands too close when talking to people)
- Observe what other children your child’s age do that is more appropriate. Create a specific rule about that behavior. (Example, stand two giant steps back from the person you’re talking to)
- Tell your child the rule in language she can understand and practice the rule in a safe place (like at home with you or another familiar person).
- Take your child somewhere that she can practice the skill with other children. Talk about what your child will do ahead of time and remind her during the social interactions if she forgets.
Thank you so much for reading this article! If you are interested in more speech and language activities for children with autism, please check out the autism section of my website: www.speechandlanguagekids.com/tag/autism.