Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) frequently struggle with interpreting and producing verbal and nonverbal communication. These struggles often include eye contact, facial expressions, body postures, gestures, social rules, prosody, and figures of speech. However, there are several ways that parents can increase their child’s communication skills. As you experiment with different activities, keep in mind that you are always modeling communication for your child.
Tip: Whenever you communicate with your child, gain their attention first, try to stay at their level, and avoid confusing them by using language that explicitly informs them of what is and what is not expected of them.
1. Games and activities are always a favorite way for any child to learn and can be used to increase your child’s engagement and build their communication skills. Whenever you are playing with your child, try to engage them in cooperative play (together), instead of parallel play (side by side), as much as possible. You can do this by remembering to insert yourself into their world of play by simply adding blocks onto something they are building so you are building together or creating a roadblock on their train tracks to engage them and change the game to include both of you.
2. Playing Charades can help develop your child’s nonverbal communication skills. Take turns acting out different categories such as emotions or favorite activities.
3. Coloring books can also be a terrific way to expand your child’s story telling ability. By looking at the pictures and telling a story about the scene while they color, they are having fun while practicing communication.
4. Traditional board games, such as Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, and card games, such as Uno or Go Fish, are also great ways to practice verbal and nonverbal communication skills since they require turn taking and can facilitate reciprocal conversations about the movement of their players or cards. Any of these board or card games can also build verbal communication skills by making modifications such as asking your child to tell you about their favorite vacation every time they get a “Sorry Card” in the game of Sorry! or their least favorite subject in school when they pull a “Wild Card” in Uno. You can also modify games to practice various topics. For example, you can discuss emotions by assigning a different emotion to every color on a Candy Land board and having your child tell you about a time they felt the assigned emotion each time they land on that color.
5. Outdoor games are another way to expand social skills such as turn taking and appropriate play. Catch, tossing a ball back and forth, tag, duck duck goose, and hide and seek are simple games that get your child moving and engaging with family members and other peers.
6. Sensory activities such as sand trays, kaleidoscopes, and playdough are wonderful ways to introduce your child to new sensory experiences as well as develop their language around talking about those experiences by engaging your child in conversation about how an object feels, looks, smells, tastes, and sounds.
7. Watch a foreign film and try to understand what the characters are doing or saying. Many children with ASD often struggle to understand the meaning of facial expressions, body language, and gestures. You can also try watching a soap opera with the sound off. Have your child tell you what the person is doing that helped them understand what was happening.
8. Guess the Facial Expression game is another way develop a child’s ability to read facial expressions. This game is played by holding up a partition (a piece of 8×11 paper works well) just below your eyes so it covers your face. Then you have the child guess what emotion you are portraying; as you create facial expressions while your child only sees your eyes.
9. A personalized dictionary of words and phrases is a great way to develop an understanding of pragmatics (context of language). Literal interpretations are another facet of communication that is often difficult for children with ASD to understand. You can help your child understand the true meanings of different forms of informal speech by creating a list or mini-dictionary of common clichés, double meanings, slang, sarcasm, and jokes with which your child struggles.
10. Emphasizing different words in phrases is another way to practice developing a better understanding of the pragmatics (context) of speech. Write down phrases and have your child practice emphasizing different parts of the sentence to create different meanings. You can also say different phrases and have your child give the meaning of the phrase based on the emphasis, inflection, and pitch you present. For example:
- I did not do that, I did not do that, I did not do that
- She does not like me, She does not like me, She does not like me, She does not like me
11. Social stories are tales about different situations, skills, or ideas and can help a child understand the process of a topic such as turn taking or conversational rules (i.e. not speaking in a monologue, switching topics abruptly, or interrupting). Social stories range in topic from grieving the loss a beloved dog to learning to wash your hands or use a potty. A great way to introduce social stories to your child is by reading them a story about something that they do very well to reinforce that reading social stories are a positive experience. Then move into an area that your child is having more difficulty with or will soon be experiencing.
No matter the activity, remember that positive reinforcement of appropriate communication is essential to improving your child’s skills. Giving your child a high-five, a pat on the back, or telling them they are doing a great job will work to encourage and empower them while they are learning and playing.
These are some of the activities that we incorporate into our social skills programs at Learning Dynamics. Contact us if you feel our Social Skills Training program may be of assistance to your family.