Ideas for Encouraging Communication and Social Behavior In Children with Autism


Communication is a process where information is exchanged between two or more people using common systems of signs, symbols or behavior. Most of the time, those symbols are nonverbal. Nonverbal cues give us important information on their own. When paired with a verbal message, nonverbal cues can provide additional information to help make the message really clear. For example, have you ever "talked" to someone just by using your eyes? All individuals with autism communicate. Some communicate non-verbally with gestures, signs, symbols and behavior. Others, communicate with words or phrases. In order to increase communication skills, educators and caregivers must appreciate what communication skills the individual is bringing to the table and build on those skills. See the following ideas for more information about building communication skills.

Mand-Model Technique

The Mand-Model technique will encourage communicative competence because it is designed for children who are generally not initiators of communicative exchanges. This approach is likely to be successful with children when they will be communicating to recieve highly preferred items. For example, food, drink, and toys are more likely to ensure a high level of motivation. (Mirenda & Iacono, 1988)

Incidental Teaching Technique

Incidental teaching refers to the the “interaction between an adult and a single child, which is used by the adult to transmit information or give the child practice in developing a skill.” All interactions are child-initiated. However, in order to produce the child’s interactions, the adult arranges the environment so that the child must engage the adult’s assistance in order to get a desired item. (Mirenda & Iacono, 1988)

Time Delay Technique

Time Delay is a natural-environment intervention designed to increase the number of opportunities for communication and to establish environmental stimuli rather than adult verbalization, as cues for communication. Time delay is a strategy to use with individuals who have been verbally cued to communicate and have become dependent on the adult prompts, or individuals who need some encouragement to be more spontateous and independent. (Mirenda & Iacono, 1988)

Make Items Inaccessible

Place items in a spot where the child can see the items, but cannot obtain the item, without the assistance from the adult. This can be done in a number of ways. First, highly motivating items can be placed behind the adult, but in clear view. Since the child cannot go through the adult, he or she must communicate with the adult to receive the item. Second, items can be placed inside a cabinet, container or a closet and picture icons or photographs can be placed on the outside of the closet or cabinet door. Once again, providing the need for adult assistance to obtain the item. Third, the adult assistance can be made inaccessible. This can be accomplished when it is recognized that the child is having difficulty opening, activating, or obtaining an item. Instead of providing immediate attention to the child’s needs, give 5-10 seconds of wait time to see if the child will attempt to initiate the request for help or for the item.

Functional Communication Training

Provide the child with more appropriate ways to express himself/herself. Challenging or inappropriate behaviors are often attempts for children to communicate a message to others. Through the use of functional communication training, challenging behaviors are viewed as communicative acts that are functionally equivalent to alternative and more conventional methods (Wetheby, Warren and Reichle, 1998).

Teach Language Skills Directly

Directly teach the skills the you want the child to learn. Highlight the aspects of language that may be difficult for them or areas where they have a deficit. Think about teaching beginning skills like matching, identifying the same, identifying different, labeling item by pointing or by saying the word, demonstrating actions when asked, etc. The skills listed/highlighted in these Language Skills Printables may give you an idea of what to work on in the area of language. Or, check out the Language Skills workbook version. 

Modified Interrupted Behavior Chain

A typical interrupted behavior chain (IBC) strategy uses naturally occurring routines as contexts for communication instruction related to requests for assistance by children who are minimally motivated to communicate (Mirenda and lacona, 1988).

Provide Structured Routines

According to Piaget, a child’s sense of knowing comes from schemes or mental structures. Initially, schemes are simple, however, over time, they build upon each other and become more complex. In order for schemes to mean anything to the child, they must be balanced. For this to occur, the child must learn to assimilate (be given) and accommodate (know how to use) any stimuli they are presented. Consistent structured routines will provide the child with the exposure and practice in the area of accommodation (knowing how to use the item). The more times he/she is presented with a situation, the more experience he/she will gain, hence, the better his/her chances of correctly performing that skill. Providing structured routines may also increase the child’s functioning in Piaget’s psychological structure of means-ends. With the adult “setting the stage” with structured, consistent routines, the child will begin to understand that he/she has the ability to make things happen in his/her environment, by using his/her own means to obtain a desired end. The child begins to expect and count on certain things happening as a result of a particular event.

Visually Clarify Expectations, Routines and Tasks

Children with Autism, in particular, tend to be visual learners. They seem to decipher visual instructions more efficiently than verbal commands. Verbal messages, such as spoken words, are difficult for children with autism to process because they disappear fast. Non-transient messages, on the other hand, provide a clear and stable message that the child can refer to with or without the assistance of the adult and without the need to understand the meaning of the word. The pictures alone often provide a visual cue of what is being referred to or what is expected of the child. Children with autism spectrum disorders require visual supports in each aspect of their environment. In the school setting, there should be visual supports to help the child understand the routines, behavioral expectations and work tasks expected of him/her. In the home, the child should have visual supports to aid in self-help skills, choice making for eating routines and behavioral expectations.

Structure Play Activities

To sustain communication between the child and the adults in his/her environment, provide structured play activities in which your child must use symbolic forms of communication to interact in order to continue playing with a favorite toy or game. Research on long term memory suggests that meaningful rehearsal of a task is one of the factors that positively influence long term memory (Ormrod, 1990). Routine, structured play activities provide a continued, meaningful rehearsal for the child to use his/her communication board, his/her sign language signs, or his/her words, in context. By creating a planned incidental learning environment, you will help promote the child’s recognition of correct responses. Communication boards like the board below can be found here.

Provide Non-Linguistic Contingent Responses to Your Child’s Behaviors

These responses typically add little linguistic information beyond acknowledging the child’s behavior. However, non-linguistic contingent responses can influence communication by enhancing joint attention focus, enhancing the child’s knowledge of cause and effect, and enhancing the child’s exploration of his/her environment. All factors that have been recognized as positively influencing future communicative acts.

Provide Linguistic Contingent Responses to the Child’s Behavior

Linguistic Contingent Responses take on two different forms: linguistic contingent responses to the child’s communicative act and linguistic contingent responses to the child’s focus of attention. To provide linguistic contingent responses to the child’s communicative act, the adult must add information the child’s communication attempts by expanding the semantic and syntactic information. For example, if the child used the sign “more,” or pointed in the direction of the chips, you would expand the communicative act by saying, “You want more chips.” Studies conducted on typically developing children radicated the frequency of simple maternal recasts positively related to individual differences in the mean length of utterance and verb complexity in children. In short, by expanding on what the child said, the child’s language increased. (Wetherby, Warren and Reichle, 1998) When the child is engaging in an activity or appears to be interested in an activity, the adult can make linguistic comments and directives about the focus of his/her attention. This will serve to provide common interest between the child and the adult as well as provide a label for the items in the child’s environment. Since children are often more willing to communicate about things that interest them, this strategy may increase his/her communicative interactions. Linguistic contingent responses to the child’s focus of attention have been shown to positively relate to vocabulary and noun use in children 9 months later (Wetherby, Warren and Reichle, 1998).


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