Whether you're a speech therapist working with kids on the spectrum or a parent trying to encourage your child to improve his or her communication skills, it can help to have a few specific speech therapy exercises to try. Autism can affect language in very significant ways. Many children with autism find it challenging to use language functionally and socially, and some of the best speech therapy ideas center around these areas of communication.
20 Speech Therapy Ideas for Children with Autism
Choosing the right speech therapy approach for a child depends on several factors, including the child's age, developmental level, learning style, and personal interest. This list is broken down by age, but it may also make sense to pick activities aimed at older or younger kids if the child has a functioning level that requires this.
Early Childhood Speech Therapy Ideas for Autism
Many children with autism are first diagnosed in early childhood. This is an essential time for language skills, and intensive speech therapy can help build meaningful interactions. Try some of these ideas:
- In a non-verbal child, try working on animal noises, rather than words. Many children with autism have an affinity for animals, and this can build an emotional connection. Use toy barns, animal trains, or any other toy that interests the child.
- "More" is an important word for functional communication, and using swinging or another favorite activity is a great way to encourage the child to try this out. Swing the child for a moment or two, and then stop the swing and wait for the child to make the "more" hand sign or say the word "more."
- Place favorite toys or food items just out of the child's reach but well within view. The child must gesture or ask in some way in order to get the item. Encourage the child to take this to the next communication level, such as going from leading the adult by the hand to verbally requesting the item.
- For many kids on the spectrum, routine is very important. Build conversational routines to help encourage language. For example, place the child at the top of the slide, and keep him or her from going down. Say, "Ready, set…" and wait for the child to say "Go!" When the child says "go," reward him or her with the slide.
- One of the hallmarks of autism in early childhood is that children on the spectrum may not turn toward their names. This will be an essential communication skill, so reward the child with a small treat or a favorite activity every time he or she turns when you call.
Preschool Speech Therapy Ideas for Autism
In preschool, the social use of language becomes more important. Children go from playing in parallel to playing together, and this can be a challenge for a lot of kids on the spectrum. Try some of these ideas when working with preschoolers on the spectrum:
- Insert yourself in the child's play by taking a turn every now and then. For instance, if the child is playing with a car ramp, take the car from him or her and put it down the ramp. Then encourage the child to say "my turn" to get the car back.
- Further encourage turn-taking by using a game the child especially enjoys. Many children on the spectrum are highly visual, so a game like "Memory" may be a favorite. Taking turns in a game like this will help the child prepare for conversational turn-taking.
- Practice phrases and strategies the child may use to interact with peers. This may include commenting on a shared activity, such as playing with blocks or using the sensory table at school.
- Model common pretend play games that preschoolers enjoy, using age-appropriate language skills. Examples include playing house, playing restaurant, playing grocery store, and pretending to be a doctor or veterinarian. If the child is familiar with these routines and the associated language, he or she will be more successful with peers.
- Practice shared attention skills with games like "I Spy." To do this, stare at something obvious, and have the child guess what you're looking at. This will help the child with conversational perspective-taking.
Elementary School Speech Therapy Ideas for Autism
In elementary school, things often get more demanding for kids on the spectrum. They may need to negotiate complicated non-verbal social interactions, and their communication differences may become more apparent to peers. Try some of these strategies when working with elementary-aged children:
- Work on labeling feelings. Use cartoon drawings and stories to help children identify how a character is feeling and suggest appropriate language-based responses for that feeling. If the child has a favorite book or character, draw on this interest to illustrate this concept.
- Teach children to ask questions. One way to do this is to hide a toy or object in a bag and have the child ask what it is. Expand this exercise by coming up with social questions the child can ask a peer.
- Work with two or more children together to help facilitate social communication. It may help to have them work from a script. Reward the children with a favorite game or small treat.
- Model non-verbal communication with the child. It's especially important to work on body posture, such as turning away or crossing the arms, and facial expressions. Script interactions that the child may actually encounter, and provide strategies the child can use to succeed.
- Many children on the spectrum have intense special interests. Use these interests to your advantage to keep the child engaged in the interaction for longer periods of time. You can work on questions and answers, turn-taking, non-verbal communication, and many other important concepts.
Middle School and High School Speech Therapy Ideas for Autism
In middle school and high school, social pressures become even more intense. You may need to focus your therapy approach on non-verbal peer interactions and life skills the child will need to succeed after school. Try some of these ideas:
- Go out into the community with the child, first observing how the social interactions take place and then having the child participate. For instance, have a child watch others place a lunch order at a restaurant, then talk about how the interaction happened. Move up to having the child place the order.
- Work on responding to unpredictable people and interactions. Talk about strategies, such as active listening or labeling feelings, that the child can use to negotiate these situations.
- Dating etiquette and opposite gender interactions can be challenging for kids on the spectrum. As they get older, it's important to work on the language skills needed for these interactions. Talk about asking questions and respecting boundaries.
- Practice job interview skills with the child. Many kids have part-time or summer jobs during high school, and these skills will come in handy.
- Conflict resolution can be challenging for a child on the spectrum. Use videos, visual aids, and practice interactions to help the child break down the interaction and participate in a productive and assertive way.
More Information About Autism and Speech Therapy
The following resources can help you get more ideas and information about autism and speech therapy:
- American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA): This professional organization for speech therapist has lots of helpful information for working with children on the spectrum.
- Speech for Kids: This site offers ideas for games and activities to help kids on the spectrum with speech goals.
- Speech Pathology Guru: This registration-based site offers a free newsletter and lots of helpful resources for working with kids on the spectrum.
Making a Difference
For many children on the spectrum, speech therapy provides the essential building blocks of a successful social life. Your child's school will offer speech therapy to qualified children on the spectrum, and you can also get independent speech therapy through clinics, hospitals, and private practices. This important therapy can make a dramatic difference in the life of a child on the spectrum.