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Communicate and connect with children on the autism spectrum

Communicate and connect with children on the autism spectrum

Communication is a complex interpersonal interaction whose ultimate goal is to engage in meaningful discourse through mutual interest and reciprocal connection. This communication requires that both sides of the communication circle understand what is required and thus can modify their “natural? way of interacting to become an effective communication partner.

Kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty with communication, especially in social contexts. Consequently, when communicating, it is important for others to meet each child with the intention of connecting. Finding a shared language in which both individuals can form a reciprocal communicative relationship is essential to successful communication.


Do understand the purpose of language and social discourse

A person can have both speech and language without being able to successfully communicate with other people. The underlying purpose of language is to give each individual a say in their life—a “voice? expressing their needs, wants and feelings.

Social discourse with other people depends on three factors:

  • A person’s ability to pick up all of the nonverbal cues of the body
  • Choosing language that is appropriate to the person and situation
  • Staying on a topic in which exchanges go back and forth, evolving from the co-creation of discourse

Do recognize the verbal and nonverbal elements of communication

Communication involves the sending and receiving of messages, which are comprised of 93 percent nonwords and 7 percent words. Communication is comprised of 70 percent body language and 23 percent paralinguistic elements, such as tone of voice, voice volume, pitch, vocal quality and rate of speech.

These verbal and nonverbal elements of communication support each other in creating the ability to relate socially to others. Since kids with ASD often are responding to the literal meaning of words—and not picking up on body and vocal cues—they are only receiving 7 percent of the message. And because emotion is expressed in the body and voice, understanding and expressing emotion can be extremely difficult.

Do use a favorite topic to teach

Often, children with ASD get caught up in their own way of “seeing? the world and have difficulty when other’s viewpoint differs from theirs. This is not being stubborn, but part of their neurologic make-up. Kids with ASD can learn to see other people’s perspective since this skill must be taught. This skill will not be developed by watching other people, but it must be broken down into small steps and practiced.

When children with ASD are focused on their favorite topic, you can use this topic of interest to teach other things. This can help them learn the give-and-take of conversation and how to listen to other people’s interests.

Do appreciate that less is more

Children with ASD tend to require a longer time to process auditory input. As a result, you should use language that is direct and not lengthy. Keep in mind that less is more. Do not bombard children with too much sound, distraction or words.


Do not forget to use visual aids

Using visual aids helps clarify meaning and provides a good way to help children with step-by-step instruction and organizational skills.

Do not overlook the need to prepare kids for change

It is quite common for kids with ASD to dislike change or transitions. So if a schedule or activity is changed, try to prepare the child before the change occurs. Using a calendar can help make things more clear.

Keep in mind that structure helps to make understanding of the plan more tangible for kids with ASD. Having a clear beginning, middle and end of an activity is very helpful.

Do not underestimate the importance of giving breaks

Kids with ASD typically need to move around and take sensory breaks. These breaks help to stimulate their nervous and vestibular systems.

Do not enter conversations with a closed mind

Remember that communication is a two-way street. Begin where the child is. Enter the conversation without judgment. Instead, enter with an interest in learning what your communication partner can teach you.

Jumping cartoon

Many people have a difficult time communicating with children with ASD. While communication can be challenging at times, it is possible if you meet each child with the intention of connecting and you successfully find a shared language and reciprocal communicative relationship. It takes two to connect, so make sure you are on the team!

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © Alenavlad -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Heidi J Ehrenreich, MS, CCC-SLP, BC-DMT Autism Coach, Speech/Language Pathologist, Registered Dance/Movement Therapist

I met my first child with Autism in 1970, well before it was identified as a spectrum disorder. Since then, my work has integrated nonverbal and verbal aspects of communication for therapy, consultation and training. My expertise includes messag...

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