Teaching Body Parts to Children with Autism

Teaching children with autism to label and touch their body parts is one of the most important skills to teach. No matter if a child is very young and has no language or if a child is older and has some language. As both a parent of a son with autism, a registered nurse, and a behavior analyst, I believe that teaching body parts is important for many reasons. For instance, being able to touch and label body parts is the first step for a child to be able to tell someone he is in pain. Over my many years working with hundreds of children with autism, I’ve come up with 3 successful strategies to help you teach this crucial skill.

Back when Lucas was little – before I knew he had autism and he was just getting evaluated by early intervention for speech and language delays – there were some questions about identifying or touching his body parts.

I mistakenly said yes, even though he couldn’t. But when they assessed him and asked him to touch his belly or touch his eyes, Lucas didn’t do it. So I was asked to show how I had him touch his body parts. I said I have to sing the Barney song first to the rhyme “we touch our head and then our toes and then our belly and then our nose.” That’s the only way Lucas knew how to touch his body parts. He was not comprehending touch eyes versus nose or head. He had no idea. And I wasn’t trying to make him look better than he was. I just was clueless about how to even assess body parts. So you might be thinking, well what’s the big deal, Mary?

Learning About Body Parts

I have found over the years that human body parts should be one of the first skills we focus on for a few reasons. One is that body parts tend to be 1 syllable in length. I did a video blog on the importance of how to get kids talking. And in that, I talk about syllable length versus word length. So eyes, ears, nose, they’re all 1 syllable and they tend to be easy for kids to say. The second big reason that I really stress teaching body parts is that the sign for eyes is actually touching your eyes. So it can be a very easy gesture even if you don’t have vocal language yet to touch your eyes and get eyes.

So you can touch parts of the body and you can say it. These tend to be easier words to say. And then the third major reason that I want to teach children body parts is that if they have pain, I can find out where the pain is. I did a video blog on this years ago because my son Lucas was having head pain and headaches. And he was able to, at that point, tell me head hurts. Now he’s almost 23 years old. He can still say head hurts, but he can’t describe the pain. Like it’s stabbing pain. He doesn’t have that much language that he can’t elaborate. But if I didn’t know that he at least had pain, I would think these problem behaviors were caused by something else. So those are the big 3 reasons why I really have a big focus on trying to teach body parts.

Teaching Body Parts Activities for Kids

Now I want to give you a teaching resource on the 3 ways that you can help kids learn body parts. This is for your child or clients who don’t have the ability to touch their body parts, request body parts, or even label body parts. 

Start applying this information and teaching body parts today with my cheat sheet below!

Magna Doodle

So the first way is to use a Magna Doodle. And if you don’t have a Magna Doodle, you can simply use a piece of paper in the same manner. With the Magna Doodle or a piece of paper you say circle, and then draw a circle. Then we would want to get them to indicate that they want the eyes drawn. So I might even say eyes and I might have the child touch his eye and draw an eye. You can then do nose, mouth, teeth, ears. And even things they’re wearing like a hat or glasses. We can make glasses especially if the child wears glasses or mommy wears glasses or the therapists. 

Some of my kids really liked to draw and they ended up drawing the body parts and talking at the same time. Again, you can use a Magna Doodle or a piece of paper. You can use different color markers or a whiteboard, whatever you have on hand. But I find that that is a great way to pair up some body parts.

Mr. Potato Head

The second thing, I think my favorite toy in the world is Mr. Potato Head. It’s a helpful tool because all the parts come off and you can teach the child to label, to request, and to touch their body parts with this great toy! Even if you have a 12-year-old or 14-year-old who is not labeling body parts or touching body parts on command without you showing them. 

Some people will say, well, potato head, that’s not aged appropriately. But if they have the language ability of a 2-year-old or 3-year-old, we’re going to have to use toys that we can take apart. So we take all the parts and start labeling them and putting them on Mr. Potato Head for the child. For instance, shoes. I give the shoes to the child and help the child put the shoes on Mr. Potato Head. I hold things up to my face and to my lips. 

Really I don’t really care about eye contact. I care about them looking at my face so that they can model my language hopefully. If you have a child that is vocal to some degree, getting echoic control and getting the ability to request body parts is sometimes very, very easy.

Regardless of a child’s age, consider using Mr. Potato Head to teach your child or client with autism to request, label, and touch body parts! To get you started on teaching body parts more effectively I’ve created a free cheat sheet on teaching body parts that you can download and start using right away.

Video Modeling

The third way that I teach body parts in addition to the Magna Doodle and Mr. Potato Head is video modeling. I will use songs such as Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. Sometimes it’s just with me on a video. I could also do it in person with the child, have them be touching, just like I got Lucas to do the Barney sing-songy touch your body parts. If we’re doing them out of order with Mr. Potato Head and with a piece of paper or a Magna doodle, we can also do them in a sing-songy fashion with Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. 

I had a lot of success with a young learner named Curt who had some pop-out words and most of them were body parts. He would say about 10 words per 2-hour session and a lot of them would be eyes and ears and nose. So I decided to make 2 video models for him. One was me singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. Another one was me just labeling body parts. So the camera’s just right on me saying “eyes, nose, mouth, teeth, glasses hi.” 

2 weeks later I got back from a vacation. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks. I just walked in and said hi. And Curt said, “hi, eyes, nose, mouth, teeth, glasses hi.” I literally had forgotten about the video that I made that I was hoping mom would get on his iPad.  From that session on, instead of getting 10 words in a 2-hour session, I got 100 words in a 2-hour session. So it was a way for Curt and for other kids to just really go up with their language.

Getting Help

Curt is now in elementary school with very little support and he’s conversational. I think body parts are a great way to start teaching kids if they have no language and no ability to touch body parts. Or even if they have body parts but they only say them on their own terms and you want to really strengthen that skill. I would highly recommend you try these out for your child or clients.

If you’re interested in hearing me talk more about this week’s topic, check out my podcast episode on pain indication and medical conditions.

Wherever you’re watching or reading this, I’d love it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, share this video with others who may benefit, and for more information, you can attend a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop and I’ll see you right here next week.

Start applying this information and teaching body parts today with my cheat sheet below!