Communication Skills for Kids with Autism

Many parents of young children with autism dream of the day when they can have full conversations with their children. But getting children who are not talking much or at all to become conversational is a big mystery for most parents and professionals. So, today I’m going to break it down and talk about how to teach communication skills for kids with autism.

Let’s think about a conversation between two adults on the phone. Say I call up my mom on the phone and start with, “Hey, mom. How are you?” In verbal behavior terms, this is an advanced mand or request for information. My mom might answer with, “I’m feeling okay,” or “I’m feeling a little sick,” or “I’m doing great.” That answer is an advanced intraverbal. 

Right after my mom answers my question, though, she will probably ask how my day is going too. So we bounce back and forth between advanced mands (or questions) to intraverbals (or answers to the question). If I’m in a rush and don’t have time to talk, I’ll stop manding to my mom and try to get off the phone. I’ll just answer her questions and tell her I’m in a rush and quickly get off the phone. But when we think about having conversations, it’s basically a mixture of advanced mands (asking questions) and intraverbals (answering questions). 

Teaching Mands

For my clients who went from not talking to conversational, we programmed using the VB-MAPP. This included teaching early mands, requests for things the child wanted first – whether they wanted them or needed them – such as food and drink and of course the iPad. 

Then we moved on to manding for actions, using single words such as come, up, help, push. We had the child manding for missing items by programming for these things, then manding for attention. Manding for attention is really hard because it’s hard to program for teaching a child to want somebody’s attention. It involves a lot of capturing and contriving the motivation. Then finally, we worked on mands for information like asking my mom, “How are you today?”

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Teaching Intraverbals

Intraverbals, or the answer part of questions, start off with basic fill in the blank with the last word. You can use songs, such as “twinkle, twinkle little …” and then leaving that blank, the child would fill in “star.” You can use full sentences such as, “You sleep in a …” and they fill in “bed.” The child answers with or without pictures present. 

After intraverbals, you can work on answering questions, like “Where do you sleep?” This begins to build more and more complexity. But stick to simpler questions. Answering questions like “What do you eat in the morning that is warm?” is a lot harder than answering “What can you eat?” Because “what do you eat in the morning that’s warm?” involves eating and morning. The child then needs to know the difference between what you eat in the morning versus lunch as well as what foods are hot, warm, or cold. That’s pretty complex. So, it’s not just a matter of getting a child to ask and answer questions, but also what conditional discrimination there may be or how complex the questions can get before they fall apart.

I remember years ago listening to Mark Sundberg present, who is the author of the VB-MAPP. He said, “What do you wear to the beach?” is a question, and “What do you take to the beach?” is another question. We change one word, we change the answer. This is why intraverbals are so, so hard for kids. And not just English and not just kids with special needs. You really need to be four or five years old before you can get to talk about these things that involve such complexity. Learning to communicate can be a slow process.

Teaching Communication Skills for Kids with Autism

Over the past two decades that I’ve been in the autism world, I’ve learned that communication and social skills need to be taught systematically, and most times it takes years to build full conversational language. Also, children and adults with cognitive impairment in addition to autism like my son, Lucas, may have the ability to ask and answer some questions, but are not able to ever acquire full conversational speech. The child may develop good nonverbal communication or use spoken language. The most important thing to remember is that the child understands language. My best advice to build communication skills for kids with autism is to assess and program using the VB-MAPP assessment and make basic manding the centerpiece of your child or client’s program.

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