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Improving communication skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Communication encompasses exchange of thoughts, feelings, ideas and information with each other. It is one of the essential parts of everyday life. For children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) communicating with others can be challenging. This may be because, due to ASD children might have difficulty developing language skills which includes understanding what others are saying to them.

We generally think of communication taking place through speech and written language. Nature of communication is not verbal always. Knowing and sometimes unknowingly, we also make use of gestures, facial expressions, body posture, tone of voice and behavior to convey our thoughts. It is very likely that children diagnosed with ASD would prefer one of the mediums of nonverbal communication as language ability varies widely.

Like most children, a child diagnosed with ASD also would like to be understood and understand you. In their own way, children would try to respond, request, refuse, try to get your attention, greet, ask questions or express their own feelings. The challenge parents face is to interpret the child’s unique ways of expressing themselves while also teaching them more affective and sometimes more appropriate ways to communicate.

Few ways in which parents can help in better communication and promote language development in children diagnosed with ASD are:

1. Encouragement for play and social interaction: Play is an important medium of learning during childhood. Interacting with other kids through play provides enjoyable opportunities for the child to communicate. With a child diagnosed with ASD, its important to find the games and activity that he/she would enjoy. With these activities try to add social interaction. This would be less anxiety provoking for the child and therefore learning could be more.

2. Imitation: When the child is trying to vocalize, imitate the sounds and encourage the child to vocalize and interact more. Parents can turn this into a simple game encouraging the child to copy and taking turns to vocalize the sounds. It very important to make sure that this imitation is a positive experience for the child so that he/she is motivated to do it more and more. This can be done in simple sounds like when the child is playing with car and making sounds. Just do the same and make it into a fun activity.

3. Nonverbal communication should be the focus: The child may prefer to communicate using nonverbal medium. Parents should respond and encourage any medium of communication. More and more the child learns to communicate using gestures, it can build a foundation for language development. To help in this process, try and add simple spoken words with gestures while responding to the child. For example, extending hand to point out when you say ‘look’, nodding head when saying ‘yes’, clapping hand while asking the child to clap and extending arms when asking the child to come.

4. Give space for the child to talk: It human tendency to fill in language especially as parents when the child does not immediately respond. With a child diagnosed with ASD, its crucial not to give in to this urge. When parents ask a question or feel that the child is wanting something from them, they should wait patiently while looking at the child expectantly. The response can come in the form of sound or simple body movement. This is the moment that parents should respond promptly. The promptness of the response would help the child understand and reinforce the importance of communication.

5. Simple language: Teaching and encouraging verbal communication especially should be started with the usage of single words. This makes it easier for the child to imitate if not the whole word, definitely the sound. While introducing the child to any object, especially of daily use, name it in single words. Like ‘ball’, ‘spoon’, ‘cup’, ‘bag’. When the child starts to use and respond in single words, start using two-word sentences. Like ‘get spoon’, ‘throw ball’. The simple rule to follow is to use phrases with one more word than what the child is using.

6. Following the child’s interest: It is also beneficial to introduce spoken language while the child is doing what he/she likes and enjoys doing. For example, narrate what the child is doing using simply phases. For example, if he/she is playing with blocks while putting in it slots. As soon as he/she puts the block in, say ‘in’ and clap. By engaging in the activity the child is doing, he/she would be able to associate the activity with the word being spoken.

7. Visual support: Children diagnosed with ASD are generally visual learner. It is always beneficial to use visual cues like cards with pictures simultaneously describing the action or activity happening at the time. Children form the association with the words being spoken while understanding the activity that is happening.

Each child diagnosed with ASD is unique. It is always a good idea to take the help of the therapist and understand what strategy would work best with your child and implement it.

Written By: -

Isha Singh - Clinical Psychologist

Director - Clinical Services, Ananya Child Development Centre.

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