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Last Updated on April 27, 2021 by Steph Reed

Why your choice of language is so important to an autistic child

Each child with a diagnosis of autism will have varying abilities with language and communication. If you know more than one autistic child, you will know that their communication and language abilities will be very different.

It is important to understand the difference between expressive and receptive communication skills, because all autistic children will have some degree of challenge or delay in one or both of these areas:

Expressive communication: using language and verbal or non-verbal communication to convey a message.

Receptive language: understanding words, language and communication as a receiver of a communicative message.

Furthermore, research suggests that autistic children may also have challenges related to:

Joint attention: the ability to co-ordinate attention between people and objects

Symbol use: learning and understanding conventional or shared meanings for symbols (a symbol being anything that conveys a meaning, for example; a sound, a gesture or a word)

advice for parents and carers of a child with autism ast autism spectrum teacher
It is important to actively be aware and think about these four areas when communicating with a child. Questions you could ask yourself when communicating/ teaching are:

  • Does the child mean something different to what they have said? (expressive language)
  • Has the child understood the question I have asked? (receptive language)
  • Is the child not listening because they have difficulties with joint attention? (joint attention)
  • Does the child understand a word or a picture I am using? (symbol use)
  • Taking these areas into consideration, your use of language is very important: 

    Be clear in your use of language

    Tips for communicating with an autistic child
    (or a child with communication needs)

  • Be specific and to-the-point. If you want a child to sit on their chair, say “(name) sit”. Avoid using any unnecessary language that may get lost in the communication message such as “(name) can you please sit on your chair now”. Just use key words to avoid overload of information.
  • Be literal and obvious in your choice of language.
  • Say exactly what you mean: For example: rather than “don’t run” – say “walk”. In this example, the child may just process the word “run” and the communication message becomes meaningless. Always say what you mean.
  • Be as concrete as possible in your use of language: Ensure any abstract language and concepts are supported visually to help with understanding.
  • Avoid using any language that has a different meaning, such as sarcasm and idioms: This may be interpreted very literally or not understood at all. If you are teaching these concepts, ensure the meaning is fully explained in a way the child can understand.
  • Emphasise key words of your communication message with sign language and/or visual support: Especially for children with additional learning difficulties, this can give the child extra cues to what you mean. The region you live in, will determine the common signs used in that area and a Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT/SLP) should be able to teach you or point you in the right direction of which signs are used in your location. If you do not have access to a SaLT/SLP, there is a lot of information online. Makaton is a simplified version of sign language specifically developed for people with learning difficulties and has been adapted for over 40 countries.
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    Steph Reed

    Hi I’m Steph Reed, an Autism Specialist Teacher and Consultant. I teach schools, service and families practical ways to meet the needs of autistic children, to maximise their outcomes.

    2 Comments

    Colleen Jardine · September 21, 2021 at 1:13 pm

    Hi Steph, my name’s Colleen Jardine. I gained a load of knowledge from your post that will be extremely beneficial in dealing with the autistic students that I have in my Grade 2 class. However, the problem that I am faced with is that there are no strategies in place to accommodate their learning needs. These children are placed into mainstream classes with up to 35 students in a class and then basically forgotten about. Two main reasons firstly, because of social pressure parents do not accept that their children have learning difficulties, and secondly, teachers are possibly not skilled in dealing with learning disabilities or have the time to support these students learning needs. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) includes a range of medical conditions but how do teachers maximize learning outcomes for these students went there is no solid information available nor parental assistance and participation? They are Grade 2 students so there is still time to intervene, however, I am unsure of how to approach school management? How would you go about approach school management to set up a conducive learning environment for these students?

    Steph Reed · October 27, 2021 at 11:49 am

    Hi Colleen, I would implement as much as you can be yourself. Show management evidence of why these strategies really help (i.e. blog posts, books, research – this will help to show the reasons why and importantly – the impact on children’s outcomes. Good luck.

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