Here are two BIG challenges when teaching communication skills to children who have autism.
1) Children do not initiate the newly learned communication skills independently.
2) Children do not use newly learned communication skills in new (untrained) situations.
Here are some of the things that you can do to help your child initiate communication skills and generalize communication skills:
1) Choose skills that you know your child would like to have and your child is more apt to independently initiate the skill. If your child learns to request toys with a therapist but your child can independently access toys at home, you know this skill will not be used anywhere except therapy sessions. Either you can suggest that your child be taught to request something not so readily available in the real world or you can make toys less readily available while your child is learning this skill. If you know that your child is really more interested in playing with other kids than playing with toys, you can suggest that the communication objective be for your child to learn a way to invite kids to play. From my perspective as a Speech Therapist, this is a much harder objective to set up and make happen but it is also much more interesting and fun to set up and make happen. I love when parents give me a challenge like this. I also know that if parents are right and the child does want to play with other kids, the child will initiate and generalize this skill and I will have beat the initiation/generalization odds by teaching the right skill.
2) You can help your child learn to want new things. Labeling items by color is not so interesting and your child might learn to do this as a therapy task but never use a color word anywhere else. You can help your child want to know colors, though. For example, opening various colored packages to see if something interesting is inside--now that could be interesting. Red Egg Please dad might say to get a red plastic egg from mom. He can open that egg and find a stretchy frog inside--playing with the frog in front of his child but not giving the frog to the child. Green Egg Please dad might then say to get a green plastic egg. Inside this egg he might find a sticker and place that sticker on a paper without giving the sticker to the child. Dad can make this getting colored egg thing look fun. If this game is repeated next to a child who does not know color words and the child imitates dad and says Green Egg after watching dad, dad can say Uh Oh! Green is empty, say Blue Egg Please showing the empty green egg and pointing to the unopened blue egg. As soon as you have taught your child a reason for learning a new skill such as naming colors, you can make reasons for naming colors all day long. Exaggerate your preference for blue shirts, ask to eat a favorite food out of a green bowl and reject the red bowl as unacceptable. Even labeling colors around the house can be made interesting once your child knows that there is a valid reason why the color of things matters. Which brings us to the Generalization Issue.
3) You can help your child generalize new communication skills by using the new skill with your child in as many tasks as possible. Note color at bath time, wash dishes by color together, sort laundry by color and by-all-means send the laundry down the laundry chute together by color. Goodbye green shirt. Goodbye green socks. Goodbye blue shirt. Goodbye blue pants. Goodbye blue socks.
Here is a recent study that encourages parents to take part in communication intervention:
Enhancing generalized teaching strategy use in daily routines by parents of children with autism
Link to Plastic Eggs