We talk to children for many different reasons. Sometimes we are just chatting to ourselves and don't really expect the child we are talking toward to respond--in which case, you need not modify the way you talk at all. Hopefully, more often, we actually want and expect the child to respond to what we say. Here is where it gets tricky if you are talking to a child with autism. The child may not respond at all. Or the child may not respond in a positive way. There is a good chance, when this happens, that the child is not understanding what you say. Don't give up when this happens, help the child notice and understand what you are saying, change the way you are talking.
So, how to talk to a child with autism?
- Talk about something that the child is interested in. It is much easier for you to get on the child's train of thought than it is for the child to get onto your train of thought.
- Use an animated voice. An interesting voice and facial expression will help the child pay attention to you.
- Use shorter sentences. The guideline is to use sentences that are one to three words longer than the child uses when he or she speaks.
- Demonstrate what you mean. This might involve using an action, a picture (often called using visual supports) or just pointing
- Pause more often so that your child has time to process what you say. Some children take many seconds to make sense of what they hear. Count out six seconds right now and feel how long that is. One thousand one...One thousand two.....one thousand three....One thousand four....One thousand five....One thousand six. I have worked with many young children who needed six seconds or even longer to understand and respond to things that I said.
- Say things one simple way rather than three different ways. Most of us can say a thing in a dozen different ways. If we want a Teddy Bear we can say Hand me the Teddy Bear or Could you pass the Teddy Bear? or I need the Teddy Bear now or I won’t be able to do this without the Teddy Bear. This variation is what makes language delightful for those of us who understand every one of those sentences. This variation is what makes language impossible for young children who have autism. Use a simple way of saying a thing and demonstrate what you mean as you say it to insure that the child will understand. If you are going to be asking for the Teddy Bear several times in a row, perhaps as part of a Teddy Bear Exchange Game that you have created, then ask for a Teddy Bear the same way every time.