Activities to Promote Language with Autistic Preschoolers

Child with teacher

Whether they are high or low functioning, verbal or non-verbal, most children on the autism spectrum struggle with some aspect of language. In fact, the DSM-IV lists language or communication impairment as one of the three core diagnostic criteria for autism. Preschoolers are at a perfect developmental level to practice and improve language skills, which include more than just speech. Fortunately, there are many excellent activities to promote language in preschoolers with autism.

Improving Language Skills in Non-Verbal Preschoolers

Some preschoolers on the spectrum are completely non-verbal. According to Autism Speaks, about 25% of people with autism are unable to communicate using speech. However, through early intervention, many preschoolers eventually move outside this classification.

Try some of the following activities to encourage non-verbal preschoolers to use language to communicate.

Let's…Go!

When you're working with a child on the spectrum, you may struggle to maintain the child's focus. The key to keeping the preschooler interested is to use activities that are especially fun for the child. For many kids, toy car ramps can be rewarding. This makes them the perfect activity to work on language skills.

The purpose of this exercise is to improve functional communication, the use of language to satisfy a need or want. Follow these steps to perform the activity:

  1. Allow the child to play alone with the ramp for a few moments so he or she can become interested in the activity.
  2. Once the child is interest, insert yourself in his or her play. Take the car, ignoring the protests, and roll it down the ramp. Then give it back to the child. Take a turn every few minutes.
  3. When the child is used to your presence, add a language routine into the mix. Take the car and hold it at the top of the ramp. Say "Let's…." Then, just before you let go of the car, shout, "Go!"
  4. Repeat this activity several times. After a few repetitions, begin pausing before you say, "Go." Finally, stop saying "Go" and wait to go until the child says the word. Reward any approximation of the word or any sound at all from the child.
  5. When the child has mastered this activity in the context of the car ramp, expand to other situations, such as riding in a shopping cart, sliding at the park, or rolling a ball. Try to incorporate as many different situations as you can.

What Does the Pig Say?

In non-verbal children, any type of appropriate verbalization is an important step. This exercise focuses on animal sounds, which are a great way to practice speech. Since many kids on the spectrum are fascinated by animals, this activity will keep their interest.

Visual aids can be especially helpful for children with autism. This free printable will help you practice this animal sound activity together. Simply follow these steps:

  1. Print out the pictures of the animals, and cut them out. You may want to print them on cardstock and laminate them to help them stand up better to little hands.
  2. Sit facing the child, and hold the animal card within the child's line of sight.
  3. Say, "What does the cow (or other animal) say? The cow says 'Moo.'" Repeat this same phrasing for each animal card.
  4. The next time you run through the cards, say, "What does the cow say?" and then pause. Wait for the child to fill in the sound. It's okay if you have to wait for a while.
  5. When the child is able to say all the animal noises, bring out corresponding toy animals and use those instead of the cards.

I Want More

Anyone who has spent time with a young child will tell you that the word "more" gets a lot of use. This handy word can apply to activities like bouncing or swinging or rolling a ball, as well as to food and toys. "More" is an essential word for functional communication.

Try this activity to teach "More" to a non-verbal preschooler with autism.

  1. Choose a tasty treat the child enjoys, such as fruit snacks, apple pieces, or pretzels.
  2. Have the child sit across from you at a table. Place one treat in front of the child and a large pile of treats in front of you.
  3. After the child has eaten her treat, hold up another one. Clearly say "More." Give her the treat. Repeat this a couple of times.
  4. Next, hold up the treat and wait for her to say "More." If the child is struggling with the speech aspect of this activity, choose a token or picture to represent the word "More" or use a hand sign to represent this word.
  5. When the preschooler is saying "More" appropriately in this situation, expand it to include other activities she wants.

Activities to Expand Language Skills in Verbal Preschoolers with Autism

For some children with autism, language may be limited to labeling objects or other non-functional situations. Many kids struggle with echolalia, in which they repeat phrases they have heard before. In these kids, the mechanics of speech are in place to some extent, but the real use of language to communicate is missing.

Try these ideas for improving functional communication in kids with some speech.

Rhyming Time

The patterns and sounds that go with poems and nursery rhymes can be especially fun and interesting for kids on the spectrum. You can build on this interest by using rhymes to help the child learn important functional phrases and the situations where they appear. Try some of these ideas, and make up your own as well:

  • "At the end of dinner, I don't get confused./ I just say, 'May I be excused?'"
  • "If I want to play, I have learned,/ I can say, 'May I have a turn?'"
  • "When someone says 'Hi!', I know what to do./ I just say, 'Hello! How are you?'"

I Need Help!

Another important activity for improving functional communication involves setting up situations where a child needs to ask for your help. Kids on the spectrum can be extremely self-sufficient, helping themselves to snacks or devising ingenious ways to reach the toys they need. However, with some forethought, you can set up situations where the child needs to ask you for help.

Follow these steps to get your child using language to meet his needs:

  1. Make a list of things the child wants on a regular basis. These items may include favorite toys, videos, music equipment, books, snacks, or other objects.
  2. Find a spot in the room where the child cannot reach these objects but they are still well within his sight. Place one of the items there, and then wait for the child to notice.
  3. Model the proper way to ask for help, such as saying "Will you help me please?" Have the child say the words after you.
  4. Place another item in the same spot and wait to see what the child does. You may need to prompt him several times, but eventually, he'll begin asking.
  5. Next, try to incorporate this activity in more general situations and other settings.

Sorting Letter Game

This game is a fun way to teach letters and letter sounds to a preschooler on the autism spectrum. It incorporates sorting, a favorite activity for many young children with autism, as well as visual cues. You'll need the free printable cards and three shoe boxes, painted yellow, red, and blue.

  1. Print out the letter cards and cut them apart. For durability, consider printing the cards on heavy paper or laminating them.
  2. Place all the cards face-down in a pile. Place the painted boxes in front of the child.
  3. Have the child pick up one card and say the name of the letter or make the sound it makes, then let the child sort the card into the appropriate box.
  4. Repeat with all the cards.

Promoting Social Language in Autistic Preschoolers with Good Speech Skills

For some children on the autism spectrum, especially those with high functioning autism or Asperger's, speech doesn't present a problem at all. In fact, many of these children have advanced vocabularies. However, they may still struggle with some of the functional and social aspects of language.

The following activities can help improve social and functional language in kids with good speech skills.

All Aboard Train Game

Turn taking is an important behavior for social language, since in mimics the back and forth nature of conversation. Using this printable game board and train markers, you can turn this essential skill into a game. Simply follow these steps:

  1. Print out the game board and markers, and cut them out. You'll also need a die with easy-to-read numbers on it. Each player receives a train marker.
  2. To play the game, each player must ask a question of the other person. Then the player can roll the die and move her piece the specified number of spaces.
  3. The other player must answer the question and ask another question to the first player. Then she can roll the die and move.
  4. Players continue asking and answering questions and moving the markers until one player reaches the end of the tracks. That person is the winner.

Let's Pretend

To perform this activity, you'll need several preschoolers with and without autism. The goal is to teach the child with autism how to engage in play with his or her peers. Pretend play can be tricky for kids on the spectrum, but all it takes is a bit of practice.

Work with the kids as they play. Teach the routines of these games to the preschooler with autism, who may not pick up the rules from watching others. For each game, talk about the roles and interactions as they happen. Try some of these common games:

  • House
  • School
  • Store
  • Beauty shop
  • Dog groomer
  • Veterinarian
  • Doctor
  • Ice cream parlor
  • Restaurant

Mystery Box

Asking questions is an important component of language, but this can be a challenge for many children with autism. Like many language skills, this one takes practice. It's also essential that the child feel interested in the activity. You can encourage interest by rewarding appropriate questions with stickers.

Follow these steps to encourage question-asking:

  1. Gather up a shoe box and several objects. The objects should be very different from one another. For example, you might choose a spoon, a rock, a toy car, and a key.
  2. Place one object in the bag, and tell the child you're ready to start answering questions.
  3. When the child asks a question about the object, such as, "Is it big?" give the child a sticker and answer the question.
  4. After the child has guesses the object and received the agreed-upon number of stickers, reward him or her with a prize.
  5. For variety, have the child hide an object, and you ask questions about it.

If you need help downloading any of the printables within the article, check out these helpful tips.

Tips for Working with Preschoolers with Autism

Working with preschoolers on the autism spectrum can be extremely challenging, as well as rewarding. As you promote the child's language skills, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Remember than some children with autism have trouble understanding verbal instruction. If possible, give the activity instructions in a variety of formats.
  • Introduce these activities gradually to avoid overwhelming the child. It's best to work on one language-related game at a time.
  • Make the language activities fun and praise all progress, no matter how small. This is hard work for the preschooler, even if you're making it fun.
  • Read often and for long periods of time. This exposure to language is important for all children and essential for kids with autism.

Language Activities Can Have a Dramatic Effect

As one of the core diagnostic criteria of autism, all preschoolers on the spectrum have some degree of language impairment. However, working with children during the preschool years can have a dramatic effect on their future language skills. Progress may be slow at first, and there are sometimes setbacks along the way. The key is to keep engaging with the child. Eventually, all your hard work will begin to show.

Activities to Promote Language with Autistic Preschoolers