Teaching children with autism how to communicate is essential in helping them reach their full potential. There are many different approaches to improve communication skills in a child with autism. The best treatment program begins early, during the preschool years, and is tailored to the child’s age and interests. It also will address both the child’s behavior and communication skills and offer regular reinforcement of positive actions. Most children with autism respond well to highly structured, specialized programs. Parents or primary caregivers as well as other family members should be involved in the treatment program so it will become part of the child’s daily life.
For some younger children, improving verbal communication is a realistic goal of treatment. Parents and caregivers can increase a child’s chance of reaching this goal by paying attention to his or her language development early on. Just as toddlers learn to crawl before they walk, children first develop pre-language skills before they begin to use words. These skills include using eye contact, gestures, body movements, and babbling and other vocalizations to help them communicate. Children who lack these skills may be evaluated and treated by a speech-language pathologist to prevent further developmental delays.
For slightly older children with autism, basic communication training often emphasizes the functional use of language, such as learning to hold a conversation with another person, which includes staying on topic and taking turns speaking.
Experts estimate that as many as 25 percent of all children with autism may never develop verbal language skills. For some of these children, the goal may be to acquire gestured communication, such as the use of sign language. For others, the goal may be to communicate by means of a symbol system in which pictures are used to convey thoughts. Symbol systems can range from picture boards or cards to sophisticated electronic devices that generate speech through the use of buttons that represent common items or actions.
Related Video: Understanding Speech Generating Devices
What research is being conducted to improve communication in children with autism?
The federal government’s Combating Autism Act of 2006 brought attention to the need to expand research and improve coordination among all of the components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that fund autism research. These include the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which is the principal institute for autism research at the NIH, along with the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Together, these five institutes have established the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE), a program of research centers and networks at universities across the country. Here, scientists study a broad range of topics, from basic science investigations that explore the molecular and genetic components of autism to translational research studies that test new types of behavioral interventions. Some of these studies, which could be testing new treatments or interventions, might be of interest to parents of children with autism. Go to http://clinicaltrials.gov and search on “autism” for information about current trials, their locations, and who may participate.
The NIDCD supports additional research to improve the lives of people with autism and their families. Recently, a group of NIDCD-funded researchers developed recommendations calling for a standardized approach to evaluate language skills in young children with autism spectrum disorders. The new benchmarks will make it easier, and more accurate, to compare the effectiveness of different intervention strategies.
NIDCD-funded researchers in universities and organizations across the country are also looking at: