Expanding Expressive Language Skills for Children with Autism; Mistakes to Avoid

Years ago, when I first began teaching Lucas to speak and use his expressive language skills, I didn’t know about the building blocks of language. Expressive language is the ability to say words where receptive language is understanding language. When Lucas wanted a snack, I taught him to say “open cabinet”. It was only when he began using the phrase “open cabinet” for when he was frustrated and couldn’t open a water bottle that I realized that the phrase had been overgeneralized for him. Today, I’m going to be talking about some of the mistakes to avoid when increasing expressive language skills for toddlers.

In my first book The Verbal Behavior Approach, which I based on B.F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior (1957), I teach parents and professionals that it is important to start with one-word utterances, and then build onto that foundation with two-word utterances. In my newest book, Turn Autism Around, I go into expressive language skills in even more depth.  Recently I attended a lecture given by Dr. Carbone that combined the same basis of B.F. Skinner’s work with Roger Brown’s work. While it is similar to my own work, it does have some differences that I want to go over today.

Autoclitic: What is it and why does it matter?

Dr. Carbone talked a lot about Autoclitics in his lecture. Before teaching language to a child with autism, the primary verbal operants must be in place before autoclitics can be introduced. Autoclitics are secondary verbal operants that modify other words, for example adding the plural endings or the “-ing” and “-ed” endings in verbs. Dr. Carbone explains that a typical child needs 300-400 two-word utterances before they can expand into adding past tense and plural endings. So while an autoclitic is important to more advanced language, we have a lot of work to do before we can start teaching them. Even getting to two-word utterances in the first place can be tricky.

When I taught Lucas to ask for a snack when he was younger, I taught him five syllables or two words. By jumping ahead in language development, I wasn’t strengthening the foundation that he needed to build on to speak in more complex sentences. Using carrier phrases like I want, or I need, can complicate building language so I advise against it.  When we jump ahead and prompt too many words, we may not be able to understand a child with poor articulation.  I have seen some amazing language growth in children with autism when they followed the approach I laid out in my books and online courses. When we go slow and get language learning right the first time, we can help children with autism reach their fullest potential to communicate as best as they can with the world around them.

So to summarize, these are the mistakes we want to avoid when increasing expressive language skills in children with autism;

  • Not completing an assessment like my FREE digital assessment
  • Using carrier phrases (I Want, I need, I see)
  • Teaching verbs with only one noun “open cabinet” instead of just using “open” with many nouns
  • Increasing the length of utterance when articulation is poor
  • Adding colors or other adjectives to language too early[/vc_column_text]


  • Why focusing on articulation matters so much when adding in new phrases.
  • The importance of teaching one word at a time for early language learners.
  • Autoclitics and when to focus on them.
  • How many nouns a child needs before expanding to verbs
  • Common mistakes that parents and professionals make because they’re too focused on adding new words too quickly.