How to Help a Toddler with Autism Start Talking
Updated: Nov 15
Autism is a lifelong social communication difficulty that affects how a child relates to other people and how they experience the world around them.
Children with autism can have additional difficulties with sleeping, eating and behaviour …BUT many do not, so difficulties with communication are often not noticed until a child is assessed by a professional.
They will not ‘grow out of it’ but can expand their communication with the support and guidance of a skilled speech and language therapist.
In my previous blog I wrote about some of the early signs of autism and how it’s important to describe these to healthcare professionals.
Communication has to be learnt before children can talk!!!
This is the key to understanding children who aren't talking yet.....
If a child is 3 years old, for example, and not yet talking they could be a ‘late talker’ and catch up quickly when they do start to talk… or they could be autistic.
The real questions to ask yourself is, "Does my child communicate with me in other ways?...and how?"
I receive many enquiries about children who aren’t yet talking. As a starting point, I always ask about the range of messages the child CAN convey without using speech. Even very young children who haven’t said their first words can use non-verbal communication to make their needs known. I ask parents, “How does your child get your attention?” and “How do they show you something?” or “How do they request something?” I want to find out if your child is seeking engagement with you or if their attention is mostly focused on objects.
Speech and Language Therapists work with children and their families to remove barriers and enhance communication. Every child with autism is different, and will have different strengths and needs - so it's important that any therapist working with your child creates an individualised plan specific to your child’s needs and interests.
Here is my advice to parents of toddlers wherever you are on your journey; whether you are waiting for a diagnosis, or have had the diagnosis and now you are wondering, " What next?".....
1. Start early
I am a passionate advocate of early intervention! Putting support in place early fosters the development of communication skills and early childhood is the optimum time for skills to be learnt and developed! If you are concerned about your child, get help before you wait for a diagnosis.
Studies have shown that early intervention is effective in helping children to pay attention to some of those early social lessons they have missed!
2. Turn everyday tasks into communication enhancing opportunities (.....without buying expensive resources!)
You know your child best and by learning the skills to support your child’s communication you become a unique and responsive therapist to your child.
These skills enable you to ‘tune in’ to your child and help them develop their understanding and use of language. I see children make a huge amount of progress just by parents making small changes to the home environment.
To quote some feedback a happy parent gave me recently, “After only a few small changes, I feel like, now he is seeing things for the first time!”
Everyday activities such as nappy-changing, snack-time and bedtime can all be adapted to motivate young children to interact with their parents.
3. Think about your positioning
Do you sit your child on your lap to read a book? Try and now position yourself at your child’s level and sit face to face- hold the book up next to your face and point to the pictures.
Social communication occurs from the eyes, the face and the body - so if you hold the book in your lap to read, your child is missing out on face to face interaction with you.
When you are caring for your child, or playing with them, position yourself so they have a clear view of your face, eyes and mouth.
4. Turn that TV off!
Electronics compete with your attention. When I visit a home to assess a child for autism I often see the TV on in the background. Research shows that young children can learn language from TV but only if there is an adult present who is supporting the child while they are watching and explaining what is happening.
The goal is for your child to learn key social communication skills from you - TV and tech just aren’t the same and they prevent your child interacting person to person.
So turn the TV off if no-one is actively watching it!
5. Use pictures to encourage making choices
Does your child stand near the kitchen cupboards crying when they want a snack?
Turn this into a vocabulary lesson by having 4-6 photos of their favourite snacks just out of reach. Point to each picture individually while naming them. Encourage your child to point to the snack they want and use sounds, then words, to express their needs.
Pictures do not substitute speech but can be used to help children to start saying words and develop their communication.
6. Have fun!
Research has shown that children with autism have a lower internal reward from social interactions so it’s important to increase the fun – and that means you have to BIG UP THAT FUN!!
When sharing food with your child. Make exaggerated movements by rubbing your tummy and shouting. “Mmm..that was de-li-ciOUS!”
By doing something that gets you child’s full attention on you, they are ready to learn so can start enjoying tasks with you. Soon your child will want to seek out more interactions with you.
Remember, any attempt to communicate with you, whether by facial expression, or by using sounds and words, should be celebrated – and again, this should be exaggerated too!
So praise every effort they make because your child is truly special!
Parents have found my 'Praising Special Children' worksheet a gamechanger when encouraging interactions with their child. If you would like a copy please click on this link and send me a request!
Lisa Taylor – Jones is a Speech and Language Therapist and an accredited assessor of autism. She supports pre-school and school-aged children with social communication difficulties and autism diagnoses. She works in Plymouth primary schools and supports families in Devon and Cornwall. She loves her job!
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