For the child with autism, communication can be tricky. “Often, kids with autism struggle with understanding while others have difficulty expressing because they don’t have a clear method of speaking,” explains Kimberly Malloy, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Clinical Director at a.c.e. Therapies in Merrionette Park. It’s certainly true that each child is different, so parents and caregivers may need to try several different ways to promote communication. ABA therapy can help, Malloy says.
Communication is more than an essential skill for children — helping a child learn to express their needs effectively is a way to reduce problem behavior, Malloy says. “Children are resilient and can figure out quickly what gives them what they want. Instead of communicating their request for a cookie, for example, they may drop to the floor and scream to get access to that cookie,” she explains.
To learn more ways to promote communication in children with autism, we tapped into expertise from a.c.e. Therapies, where — in Merrionette Park, Palos Heights, Naperville and Lockport — children and teens with autism, ADHD and behavioral issues can work with skilled professionals and scientifically proven ABA methods to gain essential skills and independence.
Parents know their child best, so when Malloy begins work with a family, she always asks what method of communication they use. “How do you know what your child needs? Every child has a tell. It might be that the child brings you something or takes your hand and directs you to the object or item they want,” she says. “The beginning steps are learning the child’s indicator.”
From this point, Malloy helps the child develop a method of speaking, whether that’s vocal language, using pictures or pointing.
Some basic ways to promote communication
Working with the intention to help each child communicate their wants and needs, Malloy says she focuses on concrete words — often just nouns and verbs — cutting out anything extraneous. “Juice, cookie, milk, doll, dog. We stay away from modifiers because sometimes children will overgeneralize,” she says.
For example, if a therapist is working on the word cookie, they will break up a cookie into small pieces and give the child a piece of cookie when they ask for one. The therapist will not, however, encourage the child to say more.
This is something that can be introduced down the line, but not in the early stages, because the child will then use the word more in potentially every situation. “Then you are left guessing what they are referring to,” Malloy explains.
Because they know children won’t request something they don’t like, therapists work with each child’s individual preferences. “If they are motivated by food, we will focus on food. But if it’s Legos, we will start by withholding some pieces and when they reach for a new piece ask them to say ‘Lego!’ or help them shape their hand to point, but always with a goal of vocal expression,” she says.
If parents are concerned that pointing or using pictures to indicate wants will ultimately discourage their child from verbal communication, they needn’t worry, Malloy says.
“Research supports that using alternate methods actually increases language when there are no other barriers to speech,” she says.
Work with your ABA therapy provider
Because parent involvement is pivotal for success, parents should work closely with their child’s ABA provider to find out what methods they are using and how they can enhance success at home, Malloy suggests. Take time to make sure your child’s ABA therapy goals align with your own family’s goals because successful outcomes can help improve the whole family’s quality of life.
“In ABA, we understand that a lot of problem behavior tends to stem from the inability to communicate effectively and that makes it frustrating for your child to move through life because it affects their ability to make choices. When there are high rates of problem behavior, there tend to be a lot of missing skills. And, theoretically, as skills go up, problem behaviors tend to go down,” Malloy says.
When children have an appropriate method of communicating — regardless of what it looks like — opportunities open up for them.
“If a child is letting problem behavior speak for them, they aren’t able to go to restaurants or to the park or to grandma’s house. But if they have an appropriate method of speaking, they can get the cheeseburger or the toys or the visits to grandma’s. This leads to a more enriching life and increases bonds with family and the wider community,” Malloy says.
Learn more about a.c.e. Therapies in Merrionette Park, Palos Heights, Naperville and Lockport at ace-therapies.com.