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.
Early Childhood Speech Therapy Ideas for ASD
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. 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.
Encourage Animal Noises
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."
Set Up Request Situations
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.
Build Conversational Routines
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.
Reward Turning to Their Name
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.
Get on the Floor
With any child of this age or developmental level, a lot of play time happens on the floor. You can encourage interaction and communication by getting down on the child's level and playing with the same toy.
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.
Insist on a Turn
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.
Choose a Beloved Turn-Taking Game
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 Commenting on a Shared Activity
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. For example, reward the child for saying what he or she is building while playing with blocks.
Model Pretend Play
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 Games
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.
Play a Gesture Guessing Game
Non-verbal communication can be a challenge for kids on the spectrum, so it's good to play games to practice this skill. Try playing a gesture game where a child is rewarded for correctly guessing the meaning of a gesture. Start by giving some examples and helping the child try the gestures out. Include pointing, shrugging, nodding "yes" and "no," crossing arms, stomping feet, and more.
Elementary School Speech Therapy Ideas for ASD
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.
Teach Labeling Feelings
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.
Facilitate Social Communication
Children on the spectrum often need a little help using language to interact with peers. You can work with two or more children together to help facilitate social communication. It may help to have them work from a script and have them play a structured game. Reward the children with praise or small treat.
Put on a Posture Play
Model non-verbal communication with the child in the form of a play. It's especially important to work on body posture, such as turning away or crossing the arms. Work with the child to write a script with these interactions in it and then act it out together.
Capitalize on Special Interests
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. You can work on questions and answers, turn-taking, non-verbal communication, and many other important concepts.
Don't Forget About Unstructured Settings
At this age, some children on the spectrum become good at using social language in a structured setting like the classroom, but they still struggle in unstructured situations like the lunchroom or playground. Observe the child in these situations and try changing the therapy routine to focus on the challenges they present. For instance, work on practical skills like joining a table in the lunchroom.
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.
Practice Skills in the Community
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 Unpredictable Situations
Work on responding to unpredictable people and interactions. It can be distressing when someone behaves unexpectedly. Talk about strategies, such as active listening or labeling feelings, that the child can use to negotiate these situations.
Practice Dating Etiquette
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. Practice these interactions with a script, including asking someone for a date, eating at a restaurant, and meeting someone's parents.
Have a Mock Job Interview
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. Have a group of kids put on a mock job interview where they must ask questions of one another and present themselves professionally.
Teach Conflict Resolution
Conflict resolution can be challenging for a child on the spectrum. Use visual aids and practice interactions to help the child break down the interaction and participate in a productive and assertive way. Write a script together of a typical conflict and the options for resolving it, such as active listening or taking a break to cool down.
Practice Giving and Receiving Compliments
Casual compliments are a common part of adult interaction. From commenting on someone's shoes to offering positive feedback about performance, knowing how to give and receive this kind of attention is important. Practice this by having the child offer and accept a compliment at the start of each therapy session.
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.
- The Hanen Centre: Designed to help kids and adults connect to grow language skills, this organization has training programs, books, and other materials.
- Speech for Kids: This site offers ideas for games and activities to help kids on the spectrum with speech goals.
- Speech and Language Kids: This therapist-run site offers 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.