Top tips for promoting speech development in a child with autism

At the Amazing K Autism School in Johannesburg we have seen many a child age 4+ develop language. Some of our students only started using their words from age 6 years. We have had incredible instances where children had been with us for years before they started using verbal language to communicate and we have also seen non-verbal children develop the incredible ability to communicate using alternative methods.

Families that we meet and work with daily all ask us the same questions: “what can be done to promote language development in nonverbal children?” We have to be brutally honest when we say that there are no guarantees because each person with autism develops uniquely. Intervention strategies that work for one child may not work for another and even though every person with autism can learn to communicate, it is not always going to be through spoken words.

Our top tips for promoting speech development in your autistic child:

  • Engage the child in all aspects of life and learning: for many children with autism interacting in everyday activities becomes very challenging and for parents it is often easier to allow the child to avoid activities rather than participate. This is one of the first steps in helping your child to communicate.
  • Encourage social interaction with other children their own age: it has through the years been proven that children learn through playing. Interactive play sessions can be a great language learning tool. It is enjoyable, fun and will encourage your child to communicate in a natural setting.
  • Sing more, sing often and sing together: The place in the brain where singing comes from is different to the place where speech comes from. Research has also shown that many autistics prefer singing to speaking. Many claim it is easier for them to sing!
  • Face to Face – eye to eye: Eye contact in Autism is one of those much debated topics and I can honestly say that I know profoundly autistic children that have no problem at all with making eye contact and I have met many lower support need autistics that really struggle to look at you. Being face to face makes it easier for the child to look at you. It makes it easier for the child to understand what you are saying when you are physically at their level.
  • Follow their lead by means of imitation: When your child is playing follow their lead, mimicking their way of playing and the sounds or gestures they make is a great first step to teaching copy skills. Teaching “back-and-forth” turn taking is the start of language development. Practise this at every opportunity you get.
  • Nonverbal communication: a non verbal child needs to learn to “ask” for things and to “talk” about things. You as the parent need to keep a close eye on the child’s non-verbal communication prompts and you need to react to them whilst acknowledging that you understand what they are saying to you. Use your own non-verbal prompts with words when making any statement. An example would be to incorporate a Makaton sign for toilet when using the sign toilet. Or nodding your head when saying the word yes.
  • Understanding receptive language difficulties and work with them: Keep your sentences short and to the point. Simplifying the way you communicate with your child will help them understand you better. Short words and sentences are much easier to imitate. An example of this would be to rather say “come” (1 word) instead of “my baby please comes here”. Or “sit” instead of “come sit next to daddy”. If your child has started using single words you can lengthen your sentences to short phrases.
  • Work on imitation skills in daily living: Get your child to participate in everything you do whether you are busy bathing them or gardening. When it is bath time let your child wash their toys in the same way you are washing the child. When working in the garden give your child a small spade and get them to imitate your actions. Always talk to them during these activities. Make noises during the bath sessions and see if you child will imitate them. Imitation is the foundation needed for speech development.
  • Affinity based learning: Your child has interests, special toys or items that they are totally in love with. Use those in your daily play sessions. Rather than interrupting your child’s focus use what they are already focussed on to encourage language and speech. By doing this you will teach your child vocabulary associated with their interest. Let their affinity be the key.
  • Using visual aids throughout your home & lessons: Visual aids can be especially helpful for children with autism. Having pictures of common activities in your home or using pictures when you are working on specific project s with your child is important. Refer back to the pictures using spoken language often.

Contact to find out more about our Johannesburg School for Autistic learners.

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Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.