Early Language Development In Autistic Children

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Fostering early language development in young autistic children goes beyond the conventional methods. Below are three creative approaches that don’t involve the typical “say this” or “say that” instructions. 

1. People Play

People play, also known as people games, are simple and repetitive routines that involve at least two people. These games do not require any toys and are meant to be quick, fun, and easy. They often involve physical movements and interactions between the participants. Examples of people play activities include playing row your boat, acting out songs, hide and seek, and chase. People play is particularly beneficial for autistic children as it helps them engage with the adults around them, learn to communicate, and have fun together.

People games lend themselves to working on joint attention or referencing.  Joint attention is a foundational skill for learning. Joint attention is when two people focus on an object or event, for the purpose of interacting with each other. With joint attention, a person can non-verbally communicate with another by using their eyes and looking at an object, and back at the other person. This shared moment fosters the development of social skills. Communication begins with joint attention. It’s how young children who aren’t speaking yet communicate with others.

Difficulty with joint attention is very common in young autistic children. If your student is not responding to your words or gestures (like pointing to something), they are likely experiencing issues with joint attention. The child may seem like they don’t hear or are ignoring what is said to them.  People games can help!  Now, I’m going to go over 5 tips for encouraging joint attention.

5 Tips for Encouraging Joint Attention:

  • Get On Their Level: Observe from their perspective without intervening.
  • Imitate What The Child Does and Says: Enter their world to gain their attention.
  • Leave a Pause: Establish predictable routines by introducing pauses during activities.
  • Position Yourself Face to Face: Enhance interaction by being face-to-face.
  • Repeat Joint Attention Activities: Consistency is key; repeat activities several times each day reinforcing learning.
little girl holding a tiger toy while playing

2. Symbolic Sounds

Symbolic sounds are simple one-syllable or two-syllable sounds that represent a specific thing or concept. They can be animal sounds (e.g., “moo” for a cow, “meow” for a cat), environmental sounds (e.g., “choo-choo” for a train, “tick-tock” for a clock), or people sounds (e.g., “achoo” for a sneeze, fake cough).

To use symbolic sounds with kids, you can:

  • Start with simple sounds that are easy to make and understand, such as animal sounds.
  • Use visuals, like pictures of animals or objects, to help the child associate the sound with the object.
  • Encourage imitation by making the sound yourself or imitating them if they make a symbolic sound like “uh-oh” or an animal sound.
  • Make it fun by incorporating games, songs, and other engaging activities.
  • Start with the child’s interests. If they love animals, focus on animal sounds. If they’re interested in trains, use train-related symbolic sounds like “choo-choo.”

3. Exploratory Play

Exploratory play is when children explore objects and toys using their senses and perform actions on them. Here are some examples of exploratory play activities:

  • Dumping, banging, mouthing, throwing, and shaking objects and toys.
  • Banging two objects together.
  • Putting one object inside another.
  • Blowing bubbles.
  • Using a foam dart toy.
  • Playing with little cars that can be pulled back and propelled forward.
  • Engaging with toys that allow children to “take out” and “put in” objects.
  • Varying activities such as slot top, take out and match, and put on.

Because autistic children tend to stay in this stage longer than neurotypical children, it can be confusing and hard to know how to expand their play. This stage of play is usually seen in the first year of life. First words often come from objects that children are able to explore by touching them. Part of this is because parents and caregivers tend to name the objects little ones are holding. So, the exploratory stage of play is more important than we give it credit for! 

When your student or child is constantly dumping toys or banging toys, it can be hard to see it as a normal stage of play. It feels useless (and messy!). However, there are some ways you can use this stage of play to connect with your student or child. There are also some toys and activities that can help add some structure so you can work on beginning language and joint attention.

Toys For Language Development

One of my favorite ways to build a connection and joint attention is through activities like blowing bubbles and using the foam dart toy.  You can also use little cars that you pull back and they propel forward on their own. All of these activities are perfect for saying “READY…..SET….. (pause)….. GO!”. This provides a predictable routine and often encourages the word “go” (or a word approximation).

Another type of toy that is awesome for this stage are toys that children can “take out” and “put in”. Remember that taking objects out (aka dumping) usually develops before putting objects in. There are so many toys that can be used to encourage these skills for a more structured activity. I’m including a link to Amazon list of recommended exploratory toys. Be sure to check that out. You can also watch my IG reels for ideas.  I have one with a crinkle tissue box take-out activity toy linked in the show notes. The other favorite is the Tot Tube.  If you haven’t heard of a Tot Tube, it’s my FAVORITE activity to get started with.  It is in the exploratory play toy list in the show notes, but I’ve also linked an IG reel showing the tot tube so you can see it in action.

In the words of Fred Rogers, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” Play is the foundation for learning, language development, and social skills. I hope these tips provide valuable insights into fostering early language development in young autistic children.

Read this blog post for more activities to encourage language development in play!

children playing in a box

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a picture with a variety of visual supports for autistic children there is an all done symbol, a wait mat, a first-then board, a visual schedule, an adapted book and a change card

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