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Children with autism are more likely to be successful communicators in environments that are designed to encourage and support their efforts. In order for the child to initiate effective communication, two conditions should be met.

1. The child must see a reason to communicate (WHY).
This is encouraged by the use of motivating materials/ activities and by creating situations in which he must communicate to make something happen.
2. The child must have a means to communicate (HOW).
The child needs to be taught the communicative behavior needed, and visual supports for that communication will need to be available.

Listed below is a collection of suggestions for setting up communicative enticements that are meaningful and motivating to the child. Many involve play. Some involve problem-solving situations. All involve good timing, especially “waiting”, on the part of the adult who sets up the situation and responds to the child’s communicative attempts.

Engage in a FUN play routine several times, then pause and wait for the child to re-initiate the routine. If the play routine involves motor movements, simple language, and a particular object, then the child has several options for HOW to re-start the pleasurable routine.


  • blowing bubbles / balloons
  • pillow games
  • physical interactions such as tickles or swings
  • motor games / songs rolling / spinning object

Set up obstacles to desired objects or activities


  • things that are out of reach but in view
  • stand in front of doorway/destination
  • containers that child cannot open independently
  • toys with mechanism the child cannot operate independently

Set up problem-solving situations

  • leave out pieces of a puzzle or other motivating toy / game
  • put in extra pieces that do not go with an activity
  • give Dad’s shoes instead of own
  • put block on plate at snack time
  • leave out needed tool / object, such as spoon when eating
  • spill something

Be observant for situations that the child dislikes.

Before negative behaviors become a problem, teach the child to communicate finished” or “stop” or “take a break”, then respect this communication.

  • offer disliked foods and teach acceptable way of rejecting
  • teach “take a break” in middle of stressful situation, such as a haircut, but then go back to it after a break is given.

Offer choices, making them visual,
whenever possible, throughout the day.

  • foods and drinks
  • toys / videos / songs
  • places to go
  • clothes to wear

Practice turn-taking
during motivating activities, using a visual cue along with verbal cues for whose turn.
Examples of visual cues:

  • hand held out palm first toward person whose turn it is
  • pass object back and forth to signal turn (game pieces, microphone)
  • name card or picture signals turn
  • special button or hat signals turn

Key Points to Remember
1. We are teaching the child both HOW to communicate (a system) and WHY to communicate (interaction).

2. Multi-modal communication (combining gesture, pictures, words, objects) is GOOD and helps the child learn both HOW and WHY more rapidly. Respond to the child’s communicative intent whenever possible, whether he uses a spoken word, a gesture, a picture, an object, etc.

3. Visual supports for communication with children with autism are critically important because they:

  • are stable over time
  • attract and hold attention
  • use strong learning modality
  • reduce anxiety
  • make concepts more concrete
  • help isolate the concept that communication is to another person
  • are a good prompting technique

4. To help your child understand you and also develop his own expressive language:

  • Limit your own language to words he knows, and try to use the same words each time in the same situation.
  • Use short, simple sentences or phrases.
  • Speak slowly and clearly, and WAIT.
  • Exaggerate your tone of voice and facial expression.
  • Use gestures or other visuals (pictures, objects, print words) paired with your verbal language.
  • When the child is stressed or upset, reduce your verbal language and increase use of visual supports.
  • Imitate what your child says, and expand on it slightly.
  • When you notice your child engaged in something that interests him, use simple language to describe what he is doing. Pairing words with actions makes them more meaningful.


Susan Boswell