For most children learning to communicate is exciting. It starts right from birth and should be fun for the child, his family and friends.Yet it is not easy, as the complex process of communication involves: - Listening, looking, understanding, thinking, wanting to communicate and needing to communicate. Children learn to communicate at different stages and children with Autism are no different.

Communication involves being able to: –

  • Establish attention
  • Cope with interruptions
  • Take in information and understand it
  • Remember what you have heard
  • Reply meaningfully

If you can communicate with your child in a way that is meaningful to him you will be able to help him understand.

  • Where to go
  • What to do
  • What comes next
  • How to do it
  • When to move
  • What are my choices
  • What can I do
  • What can't I do

Developing a way for your child to understand the answers to these questions will help reduce your child’s frustration levels and will help him to cooperate better with daily routines. The ability to understand speech is one of the biggest challenges for your child to overcome. Understanding spoken words is difficult for a number of reasons;

  • Your child may have difficulty paying attention to words because he may not be able to pick out the words as being the most important things he hears.  You may experience times when you feel your child does not even appear to hear words at all, and you may have thought he was deaf.
  • Sometimes your child may be able to pay attention to what you say but your speech is much too fast for him. So slow down;
    • Use fewer words maybe only one at a time
    • Give him time to respond
    • Only repeat exactly what you have said, if necessary
    • Make sure you have his attention when you repeat words


For some children with Autism a tantrum is the only way they have to communicate that they want something or that there is something they don’t like or don’t want. We do not want to encourage this so it is very important we give them another way to communicate their needs.

Where Do You Start?

Communication is like all the other things he has to learn and you need to start with  what will be easiest for your child, what he will understand best. We suggest starting with objects and move onto pictures when you know your child understands the meaning of picture cards.

Objects The most concrete symbols for your child to understand and use for communication.

*'TOBI’s' (True Object Based Icons) are made by cutting around the outline of a photograph of the object. This should be large enough for the child to recognise the
shape of the object. Photographs Try not to include unnecessary details in the background of the photograph.

Line Drawings You can draw your own simple line drawings or use symbols from computer programmes e.g. Boardmaker for Windows (Mayer-Johnson Co) to represent objects, food or activities etc.

Your child needs to learn the power of communication and a way for him let you know when he wants something. Some children who use objects for communication may bring an object e.g. a cup to you. Don't waste this opportunity. Even if he has just had  a drink, show him you understand what he is telling you and give him a drink.

This demonstrates to him that this form of communication is as powerful as a tantrum.

*Based on the work of B.C. Bloomfield (

Give your child a reason to communicate by using:

1. Positive Routines

Your child will have a preference for routines and will expect things to happen in a certain way. Make a list of the routines that are important to your child. Select the
routines that can be disrupted in a way that will encourage your child to communicate to get you to complete the routine. For example:

  • Give him his cup but with no juice in it
  • Give him his yoghurt but no spoon
  • Give him his crisps but unopened
  • Turn on the TV but 'forget' to put on his favourite video
  • When changing his nappy or pants, don't pull up his trousers

Your child may get very frustrated when you do these things and he may not have a way to tell you what he wants except through negative behaviour or tantrums or he may not bother to communicate in any way at all. If so, continue to provide him with these opportunities to communicate now and again but you will need someone to help you show your child what to do in this situation. For Example:-

  • When you give him his unopened sweets or crisps
  • Wait and look expectant
  • Hold your hand out to your child as a prompt to him to give you the packet to ask
    for it to be opened,
  • At the same time your partner or helper should be behind your child and hand over
    hand help him give you the packet
  • As your child gives you the packet say 'open'

Your child needs lots of practice in this physical act of exchanging objects in order to get you to do something for him. This is the start of a positive communication routine.

2. Powerful Motivators

Your child will be more motivated to communicate for things he really enjoys. Young children with Autism may be motivated by noisy/musical toys, toys with flashing lights, bubbles, rough and tumble play, sweets/crisps, dinosaurs, cars and trains. You will know what your child likes best.

Using the downloadable file of List of Powerful Motivators, make a list of the things you think your child enjoys and assess which items are the most motivating. You will be able to list these by noting if:

  • He gets upset when the item or activity is taken away
  • He gets excited when he sees the item
  • He looks for the item or activity
  • He spends a long time playing with the item

Use these motivators regularly throughout the day to encourage your child to communicate. If he is not interested at the time that you are trying to work on his
communication, then try something else, leave it to later or follow what he is interested in at that moment.

3. Using Objects to Encourage Communication

Your child may be motivated by objects such as balloons, bubbles, wind-up toys, or construction activities such as building a train track. He will usually need your help to make the toys work and the motivation to communicate will be strong. Example:-

  • Blow up a balloon and let it go
  • If your child wants it again, he will go and pick up the balloon
  • Be physically close to him and hold out your hand to prompt him to communicate
  • He may need someone to physically prompt him from behind, hand over hand to give you the balloon
  • This is his way of asking you to repeat the activity.

4. The Two Way Flow of Communication

Your child needs a reason to communicate. Use something that you know he likes and will want to ask for. Let him see it, but make sure he can’t reach it to begin with. We need to teach him that he needs to do something to you to get what he wants. You will need to have decided what you are going to use with your child – objects, TOBIS or pictures.

These need to represent those things that you have already identified as being your child’s powerful motivators.

Prompt your child to look at the card or object. You may need another adult to help attract your childs attention to the object or the card and encourage him to touch it, to let you know he wants another treat. You need to reward him and help him understand the power of what he has just done. He has asked for a treat. You can teach him this new skill in other situations when he understands that he will not get things until he asks for them.


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- Once your child has grasped the concept of exchanging to get something, you can introduce a Choice Board.

Do Children Who Have Speech Need to use Visual Communication Strategies?

Even children who use speech will benefit from visual communication strategies. Using visual supports will help them say what they mean more appropriately and reduces their stress levels. Example:-

Jack had quite good speech. He wanted to ask his Mummy for a biscuit and he couldn’t find the right word, the more he tried the harder it became for him to use the word. Jack was shown a drawing of a biscuit, he immediately looked at the picture and said “I want a biscuit”. The visual prompt helped him to use speech appropriately.

Provide Good Models of Speech for your Child to Copy

It is best to keep your language short and simple to help your child understand and to give him any chance of attempting to copy what he hears.

1. Use simple comments

'I see a dog'
'Train broken'
'Daddy's away'

2. Label things your child looks at or has

'Red train'
'Big lorry'

3. Provide speech for your child to copy at other times

To Greet - 'Hello Nanny', 'bye daddy’

To Protest - 'No want', 'no like'

To Refuse - 'Don't wanna go'

To Request - 'Mummy do it?'

To Express an emotion - 'Ryan's cross'

Generally use only one and two word utterances to begin with. Remember to use an animated tone of voice and use repetitive phrases, whilst emphasising the key words in your sentence. Your child will learn to say the words when he is ready. Continue to provide him with the opportunity to hear simple language used as part of his fun times and daily routines such as dressing and meal times.

4. Visual communication strategies will not prevent speech development, it will help your child to learn more words, use them meaningfully and reduce stress.

Top Tips for Communication

  • Give your child a reason to communicate
  • Use your child's interests and motivations to encourage him to communicate more
  • Disrupt familiar routines to encourage your child to communica
  • Develop an Exchange Communication System for your child
  • Use Choice Boards to help him see what his choices are and to teach him how to ask
  • Use simple language for your child to copy when he is ready
  • Unless your child is very upset, work through the tears to help your child learn a better way to communicate. The tears will soon disappear.

You might like to make a record of how your child communicates on this downloadable file: Top Tips for Communication