Building Language for Your Child with Autism: A Guest Series by Angela Nelson

This week, we’re pleased to introduce a series of posts by Angela Nelson on building language in children with autism. As the creator of the acclaimed Language Builder Picture Noun Card Set, Angela received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas. She has been creating autism and special needs curriculum products since 1997.

Emerging Language and Building Vocabulary

Language development varies from child to child, and there are wide ranges of expected “normal” language development in young children. If you have specific concerns about the pace of your child’s language development, you should definitely discuss this with your health care professional. However, for reference sake, by the age of two a child is expected to be able to:

  • Follow simple commands or instructions
  • Point to an object or picture when it is named for him or her
  • Recognize names of familiar objects, body parts and familiar faces
  • Repeat words spoken by others
  • Use simple phrases and 2 – 4 word sentences by 18 – 24 months

As we all know, there is no “typical” child with autism. Children on the Autism Spectrum may meet some of these objectives, all of these objectives, or none of these objectives. The goal is to identify your child’s specific language deficits (the areas you see them falling behind) and takes steps to help them catch up.

The first stages of language development, as described above, involve listening to words, imitating words, and building a basic vocabulary. In your child’s education program you may have heard professionals use terms like Receptive Language, Echolalia, Modeling, Matching, or Expressive Language. Don’t let these terms of art intimidate you. Really, they still just mean… listening to words, imitating words, and building a basic vocabulary. 

Encouraging Emerging Language Skills

A most basic step in typical language development is imitation. Many parents are surprised to learn that the parent imitating the child is almost as important as the child imitating the parent! When a 12 month old child looks at his or her mother and says “mamamama,” the mother almost instinctively replies back, “that’s right ‘mama.’” This feedback reinforces the child’s vocalization and encourages them to keep on chatting. Although children with autism may have delayed onset of this type of behavior, or may have some setbacks along the way; it is important to remember to continue to imitate vocalizations with your child to encourage verbal behavior.

Imitation will also provide the first steps in the formation of words for your child. This time I mean your child imitating you! While you are hoping to hear your child imitating full words, remember, this starts with imitating vowels, consonants and syllables. If you say “aaaaa” and your child responds back with “aaaaa,” this is a cause for celebration. You are one step closer to your child saying “apple” than you were before they could (or would) imitate your vocalization. Eventually, modeling words will become the way you build your child’s expressive vocabulary!

Check back this week for from Angela on Matching Objects andPictures as a Precursor to Language.