Teaching Colors to Children with Autism & What Autism Colors to Teach First

In the autism world, there seems to be a big push to teaching colors to kids with autism. So, today I’m going to talk about when and how to teach colors to a child with autism, and what autism colors to teach first.

About 15 years ago, a local mom who’s a friend of mine brought her young son to my house so I could assess him and give her some tips on how to help him. I remember I pointed to a chair and asked him, “What’s this called?” And he said, “Yellow chair.” Mom and Dad looked so proud, since he not only labeled the chair, but also threw in the color. They were upset and confused, then, when I told them that since I didn’t ask the color of the chair, this was actually not a great response, that I would have much preferred his response to just be, “Chair.”

So you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, Mary? Labeling colors shows more cognitive ability, so shouldn’t we just celebrate yellow chair like his parents wanted to?”

When should you start teaching colors to children with autism?

In typically-developing kids, colors often are not identified until about 30 months of age, so you don’t want to be teaching a child with very low, limited language skills to label colors. It will just confuse things. Sorting by color, so putting the yellow bear in the yellow cup and the red bear in the red cup, those are all VB-MAPP level two skills, and labeling and receptively identifying colors are actually level three skills, which are 30 to 48-month typical development.

So if a child can’t say any words, or they can’t identify dozens of nouns, like bed, and shoe, and marker, then autism and colors don’t work out too well together, and we don’t want to teach them colors. Some kids will naturally start learning colors by parents or preschool teachers using color activities, such as red day, or find all the things in the room that are green. This is ideal, not to teach or hyper-focus on colors, and let kids learn them naturally.

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But for kids with moderate to severe autism, who need systematic instruction on language, this is how I recommend teaching colors. What we want to do is to get construction paper and identify the three colors we want to teach. If your child knows any colors to start with, maybe yellow is their favorite color and they can identify yellow, then certainly we want to add yellow into the mix, because it will be nice to have one of the colors be a known skill. It’s important to keep in mind that you also may need to consider articulation with these skills.

What is important here is that you should work with a single color at a time while teaching color activities. This is because autistic children can find it difficult to make associations and then find it hard to learn colors. If a child is surrounded by a multitude of colors, it can be confusing. To teach colors to a child with autism or other delays, start with three different colors, like green, red and yellow.

When programming for a child with autism and learning colors, do not overwhelm the child with too many choices. That can make the child confused about what to choose if they are asked to select a specific color from a wide range of options. Limiting the choices while teaching kids with autism about colors will make them confident about which color to pick.

What are the best autism colors to teach first?

When in doubt, I would pick red, yellow, and green to start with. I would not pick orange and red at the same time, for instance, or orange and yellow at the same time, because they’re too close. But sometimes, articulation gets in the way with something like yellow, so we might have to substitute something that the child can say more clearly.

Also, we want to watch out for pastel colors, because they look a little bit different. I’d pick primary colors to start with, and avoid teaching brown, black, and white, and certainly gray and pink should wait, unless pink happens to be a favorite color. Those non-primary colors tend to be taught later.

So, once we have our construction paper, what you want to do is to cut it up so you have basically four to six pieces, all in squares that kind of match of red, yellow, and green. Then we would start pairing, red, red, and they would put it with the other red construction paper. We don’t want to start teaching colors with items, such as, “This is a red firetruck,” because that’s too complicated. What we want to do is we want to teach colors with these sample swatches, and then once the child really knows colors, we can start combining the color plus the item name, which is much later down the line.

While you’re teaching these color skills, until the child is very fluent with red, yellow, and green without any prompts, I would hold off trying to pair the colors, and trying to generalize it into the natural environment. That may be tough, because I’m telling you, parents and professionals really hyper-focus on colors, because that’s kind of what preschoolers learn, and like Mason’s parents, they felt like, oh, this was a good sign to add a color. So, there may be some undoing of colors you need to do.

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Teaching autism children colors is very possible, let’s recap.

So here are the three things you can do starting today, to teach colors more effectively.

  1. I would stop focusing on teaching colors to early learners. If you’re a parent or professional, you may need to spread the word about this, why teaching colors and focusing on combining colors with nouns too early is not a good idea.
  2. You do want to begin pairing colors when the child is ready, with sorting activities. I would use construction paper.
  3. When it is time to teach the child to label and receptively identify colors, we want to teach two or three colors at the same time. We never want to just pick one color, because we want to build conditional discrimination from the start.

Colors are a great thing to teach when the child is up at level three of the VB-MAPP, needing to learn other, more advanced language skills, and they’re functioning at a typical language development of a 30 to 48-month old child. Getting the colors mastered should be easy, and if it’s not, it’s probably that you’re starting too soon, without the prerequisite skills in mind.

ASD is a very complex developmental disorder. It can affect social interaction, communication, and behavior. Under such circumstances coloring is a highly effective method to improve their fine motor skills, and to better their ability to focus on a task for long periods. Moreover, teaching kids colors and helping them with coloring is an interactive and fun way for children with autism to engage with others.

If you’d like to get more helpful advice and autism teaching strategies, where to start, or how to revamp your child or client’s ABA program, begin with my easy-to-complete autism assessment at MaryBarbera.com/assessment to identify the strengths and needs of the child and gain a clear path forward.