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6 Easy Tips to Encourage Communication in Students with Autism

Communication is the bridge that connects us to the world. To encourage communication in students with autism, there are many strategies you can incorporate into your classroom. While every child is unique, fostering effective communication is a shared goal in special education. It empowers students to express their needs, feelings, and thoughts, enhancing their quality of life. In this blog post, we’ll explore some strategies and insights to help our students blossom in this important aspect.

1. Use Visual Cues to Encourage Communication in Students with Autism

As we know, visual aids are a game-changer! Consider using visual schedules and social stories to expose your students to more language in your classroom. Work together with your speech and language therapist to utilize PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) or Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices to enhance communication with students who are non-verbal. These tools provide structure and facilitate interaction in the classroom. Tailor your choice to the student’s needs and abilities. Even for students who do have verbal abilities, picture cues that they can point to or exchange during times of frustration or agitation could alleviate anxiety and increase functional communication.

2. Model Language in Daily Routines

Ensuring that your classroom is rich in language provides a great opportunity for your students to hear language are through daily routines. Get yourself into the habit of narrating classroom routines with short, simple words. For example, if a student is engaging in play time, model the actions seen (e.g., “Cut apples,” or “Eat banana”). Pause often to encourage the child to repeat words, but do not force this.

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3. Contrive Opportunities to Encourage Communication

As special educators, we are often adept in anticipating our students’ needs. While this is a great skill to have, we want to make sure that we are providing our students with ample opportunities to use their language tools to request things. For example, if you are handing out snack, instead of passing a student their favorite treat, simply withhold it and either model the verbal language or point to the picture or symbol on their AAC device. Once they follow the model (to the best of their current ability), provide the snack. Repeating this routine can allow consistent opportunities for reinforcing communication efforts!

Do not expect full sentences if the student is currently only using one or two word phrases consistently! Research supports that differential reinforcement can increase a student’s mean length of utterance over time. In other words, focus on a student’s consistent ability to communicate their wants and needs functionally before increasing your expectations.

4. Shape Communication Goals Over Time

Using the example above, evaluate whether or not a student can mand (request) for this preferred item simply after you withhold it, or if they require a model prompt. If they can communicate their request simply by seeing the item withheld, then continue to do this. If they require a model prompt (e.g., “juice”), then provide this prompt consistently for a few days before fading it to a partial prompt (e.g., “Ju-“). If they respond consistently to the partial prompt for several days, you can then try simply withholding the item to see if they will independently mand for it.

Prompting should be dynamic, in that you are always attempting to provide as much support as needed to elicit the correct response (in this case, the student’s communication response for the preferred snack item), but not providing too much support so that the student has no motivation to independently respond. If a student “beats” your prompt, (e.g., they say “juice!” independently upon sight, when you were expecting to provide a model prompt), provide higher levels of behavior-specific praise immediately, (e.g., “Wow, I love how you asked for juice!”).

5. Increase Communication by Interrupting Chains

Another strategy to increase student communication in students with autism is to remove items needed in your their everyday routines. For example, if a student is completing a puzzle, you can withhold one piece necessary for completion and hold up for them to mand, “puzzle piece” or “I want puzzle piece, please.”

Use the same guidelines above to shape expectations over time. Other chains that you can interrupt during the classroom routine could include things such as getting ready to go outside (holding up coat) or asking them to write their name (withholding a pencil). Once you shift your mindset into finding communication opportunities in everyday routines, the possibilities are endless! For more research on increasing communication in students with autism by interrupting chains, check out this article by Albert et al.

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6. Data, data, data!

Detailed data collection allows us to make informed decisions on things such as when to reduce prompts, or when to increase the target goal (e.g., expecting a one word phrase to 2-3 word phrase). Keep printable data sheets such as these handy to track your student’s individual communication goals. Increasing communication in students with autism is an important classroom goal that should not be overlooked!

Focusing on this pivotal skill early on can prevent students from learning that maladaptive behavior is a successful form of communication to access their wants and needs.

Conclusion

It is important to focus classroom goals heavily on increasing communication in students with autism. I hope this post has provided you with practical advice and insights! By using visuals, modeling language, contriving opportunities, shaping goals over time, interrupting routines, and collecting data, you can make effective progress in this area.

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