father and daughter sitting on the floor in the bedroom playing with a dollhouse

Improving Language Skills in Kids With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Sometimes parents of children with Autism think that if their child isn’t speaking by age 4 or 5, they aren’t likely to ever speak. Kids with an autism diagnosis, kids who are non-verbal or even those that have a delay without any specific diagnosis might be more frustrated and tantrum more often. This leads to difficulties at home for the whole family. Parents should not lose hope


The Research Says Non-Verbal Kids Can Learn Language


Importantly, researchers found in a study of 535 children with autism concluded even those with severe language delay (those that were non-verb or using only single words or phrases without verbs) could by age 4 could develop language skills during grade school or even adolescence. The results showed that 70 percent of those children with Autism in the study were able to communicate using short phrases and 47 percent attained fluent speech at or after age 4.


Another important study showed that parents’ language predicted their children’s language level . This means that parents who used more complex sentences had children who also used:

1. More complicated sentences

2. A greater number and variety of words


This shows us that both typically developing children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder learn more complex language when parents use sentences that are slightly more advanced than the children are using themselves, this benefits the children’s future language learning.


When the speech therapists at Therapy Works Together tell this to parents during the free online consultation, there is usually a lot of emotion involved on the parent side and also a lot of hope. Many times parents feel hopeless and even worse, helpless. They think that there is nothing that can be done to support their child.

father and daughter sitting on the floor in the bedroom playing with a dollhouse

How Parents Can Help Their Child With Autism at Home


Sometimes parents and caregivers find it difficult to know how to help their child with ASD improve their language skills and what to focus on day-to-day routines. So here, the speech therapists from Therapy Works Together suggest what you can target at home to help your child make improvements in their communication development.


Working with your child’s speech therapist to choose the best communication strategies for your child with ASD can empower parents to contribute on a daily basis to create a language learning environment which in turn encourages a child’s language development. At Therapy Works Together, we coach parents to learn the strategies they need to use at home. This way, kids usually learn faster and also graduate from speech faster.


Focus on Taking Turns


Why do speech therapists focus so much on a child’s turn taking skills? This is because in communication we take turns when we talk. You say something, I listen. And to to take turns we need to pay attention to each other. So before we ask a child to pay attention to turn taking during communication, we ask them to do it during play.  Here are some simple activities that we ask parents to focus on when we work parent coaching during speech therapy online to help them foster turn taking skills with their child.

  • Rolling cars back and forth to each other
  • Stacking blocks into a tower
  • Rolling a ball back and forth
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Adding ingredients into the bowl while baking cookies
  • Putting laundry into the hamper

Parents can also use a combination of speech and gestures to help a child learn to take turns:

  • Say the words “My turn” and point to your chest when it’s your turn
  • Say the words “Your turn” and point to your child’s chest when it is their turn

Speak So that Your Child Can Learn


Be only one step ahead of your child. Do your best not to use language that neither too complex (nor too simple). Otherwise, your child will have a hard time learning from the language you use when you speak to them.


When your child communicates with you by using a word or sentence, think about what the message is that they are try is trying convey to you. How would they say that sentence more completely if they could. Then model to them a phrase or sentence that is slightly more complex than what they told you. Think about using a new but age appropriate vocabulary word and fill in the missing grammar. Speech therapists call this expansion.


Here are some examples:

If your child says a single word: Respond with a short but grammatically correct sentence.

Child: “Doggie!” (your child just saw a dog in the park)

Parent: “the dog is running.”


Child: “Cookie.” (Your child wants another cookie)

Parent: “one more cookie.”


Imitation is Important for Learning Language


Children with autism have a very difficult time with imitating of any kind. Researchers have see that this has an impact on development of language and social skills. It was found that:

  • Language ability can be predicted by their ability to imitate gestures and body movements
  • Peer play and social skills are affected by their difficulty with imitating other children’s actions
  • Some imitation skills are needed to develop joint attention (the ability to share focus with another person on an object; a early communication skill)

How Should Parents Teach Imitation?


Parents usually teach a child to imitate by giving the child a verbal prompt to do something. They will usually say: “Do this,” and then expect the child to follow their action. They might also give their child a reinforcer  (like a food or a toy. This strategy is usually used in behavioral therapy which is often called ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis). As speech therapists we prefer not to use this method.


While it helps children with autism learn new things while copying, it does not address the social aspect of imitation or communication (this is the “why” we communicate”). When a child and their parent come to us for speech therapy online, we prefer to look at communication as whole


2 Ways to Encourage Imitation at Home


1.  Imitate Your Child’s Actions: This gets the interaction going and creates motivation and interest. Your child will immediately pay attention. One of our favorite ways to see a child’s reaction when we imitate them, is to mimic a sneeze right after they do.

Imitating your child’s actions often leads to your child imitating your action, and this creates a back and forth speech therapists love! Remember, just because the goal is increasing language skills, it doesn’t mean we have to start with language. There are other precursor skills.


2. Use Gentle Touch Cues to Get Your Child Imitating: Parents can try waving or clapping while looking expectantly at their child. Then wait 10 seconds to see if they child imitates on their own. If not, a gentle touch to the hand or giving hand-over-hand assistance (such as lifting their hands to wave) will cue your child as to what they should do.


Be Patient and Practice On


Children who have ASD and other kids who are non-verbal might experience a lot of frustration. These skills can present a challenge for them to learn and integrate into their everyday life. Parents can also find it tough to focus on and incorporate. So remember to be patient. With yourself and with your child.  Take breaks when needed and remember that every day is a new opportunity to start again.


At Therapy Works Together we know that teaching and coaching parents to integrate these skills into everyday activities works the best for increasing daily practice. When that happens, your child is more likely to make progress.


Don’t forget to shower your child with a lot of praise and encouragement. Learning new skills is not easy and even small progress deserves a lot of praise. Clap, cheer and provide verbal praise to motivate your child. Parents, you too deserve praise. You are your child’s best teacher and speech therapist after all.


At Therapy Works Together we provide speech therapy services to children and adults.
We care about every client achieving their communication goals.


Schedule a FREE 20 Minute Consultation with a Speech Language Pathologist

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