Free Communication Resources for Autistic Children8 min read

Autistic kids some­times have com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tion needs that require sup­port. Some, espe­cially those who are non­speaking, need alter­na­tive and aug­men­ta­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion (AAC) all the time.

Sometimes autis­tics may only occa­sion­ally use AAC, and others only use it until speech comes; for some it is the main source of com­mu­ni­ca­tion throughout life.

Many Autistics begin to speak at a later stage than their peers, requiring sup­port with the devel­op­ment of speech and lan­guage– this is where speech and lan­guage pathol­o­gists come in! (SLPs, for short)

SLPs are pro­fes­sionals who spe­cialise in methods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the devel­op­ment of lan­guage, and ways to assist com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The first thing a speech and lan­guage ther­a­pist should do is fully eval­uate your child’s cur­rent speech and lan­guage abil­i­ties.

Your child might be auto­mat­i­cally referred to speech therapy, or you may need to find one your­self. Unfortunately, espe­cially in rural areas or in regions where autism aware­ness is behind, there may be little (or indeed no) access to SLP ser­vices.

If you do have access, the best speech pathol­o­gists are those who fully respect neu­ro­di­ver­sity and do not use harmful tac­tics in their ther­a­peutic approach (for example, approaches that treat neu­ro­log­ical dif­fer­ences as if they are bad behavior). Check out my other article for a check­list to see what makes a good or bad ther­a­pist!

aba-maskings
Image Credit to Autistics and Allies Against ABA ‑Ireland

SLP v/s ABA

Many Autistic people are against ABA. Other arti­cles on the Aspergian will explain to you thor­oughly why we don’t endorse ABA as a therapy for autism, and we hope you will read more up on this (a reading list of some arti­cles on ABA can be found at the end of the article). Some ABA ther­a­pists or BCBA’s might try and con­vince you that they can help with your child’s speech and lan­guage, but the reality is they are not trained to do so.

The fol­lowing chart is repro­duced with per­mis­sion from the SLP Neurodiversity Collective com­pares the edu­ca­tional require­ments of SLPs to BCBAs (the people who train and manage ABA ther­a­pists). As you can see, SLPs are trained in a wide array of med­ical issues; how­ever, behav­ioral ana­lysts are mainly trained in man­aging behav­iors. This chart is typed from a graphic to make it more acces­sible for those using screen readers.

SLP Speech-Language Pathologist BCBA — Board Certified Behavior Analyst
Speech-language pathol­o­gists (SLPs) have a foun­da­tion in pre­venting, diag­nosing, and treating com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­ders and swal­lowing dis­or­ders Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) have a foun­da­tion in behavior analysis
Required Courses Required Courses
•Voice Disorders
•Stuttering
•Assessment and inter­ven­tion of lan­guage impair­ments in preschool and school-age chil­dren
•Motor speech dis­or­ders
•Neurogenic com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­ders
•Dysphagia
•Experimental Analysis of Behavior: Special Topics
•Learning Principles
•Conceptual Issues in Behavior Analysis
•Behavioral Assessment
•Applied Behavior Analysis
•Behavioral Interventions I & II
•Research and Practicum in Applied Behavior Analysis
•Ethics and Professional Issues in Behavior Analysis
•Research Methods in Behavior Analysis
•Verbal Behavior
23 semester credit hours from the fol­lowing: 6 semester credit hours from the fol­lowing:
•Articulation Disorders
•Augmentative Communication
•Autism Spectrum Disorder
•Audiology
•Anatomy & Physiology of Speech & Hearing
•Childhood Apraxia of Speech
•Dysphagia in Public Schools
•Research in Pediatric TBI
•Medical SLP
•Dementia
•Pulmonary Issues
•Tracheotomy and Mechanical Ventilation
•Pediatric Feeding
•Articulation and Mechanical Ventilation
•Pediatric Feeding
•Articulation and Phonological Disorders
•Counseling in Communication Disorders
•Bilingual Speech Assessment and Treatment
•Speech Science
•Language Acquisition
•Neurogenic Communication Disorders I & II
•Neurological Basis of Language Development
•Laryngectomy
•Craniofacial Disorders
•Advanced Topics in Adult Dysphagia
•Pediatric Dysphagia
•Birth-to-Three
•Preschool Intervention
•Therapy Strategies for School-Age Children
•Seminar in Aphasiology
•Communication and the Aging Brain
•Neural Correlates of Human Cognition: Lesion-Deficient Models
•Auditory-Verbal Methods
•Social Communication in Early Childhood Disorders
•Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury
•Current Research in Autism
•Language Disorders and Reading Disabilities
•Human Growth and Development
•Psychopathology of Childhood
•Psychoactive Drugs
•Advanced Social Psychology
•Behavioral Medicine
•Biological Basic of Behavior
•Behavioral-cognitive Therapies
•Advanced Cognitive and Affective Psychology


Apologies for the length of the chart, but it truly demon­strates the dif­fer­ences in approaches as SLP is cer­tainly a com­plex area. This is why many autis­tics would endorse the help of a speech ther­a­pist for your child; how­ever, we also know for many rea­sons this may not always be pos­sible.

Therefore, I will leave you with some more free resources that I hope will help your child! Alternative com­mu­ni­ca­tion should not be avoided in the begin­ning stages of speaking.

Parents may worry that having access to AAC will cause their chil­dren to not feel the need or desire to speak. Remember, finding a com­mu­ni­ca­tion method that works for your child that is of the utmost impor­tant, and verbal speech should not always be a pri­ority.

Makaton

One method to encourage com­mu­ni­ca­tion is Makaton, which is a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of sign lan­guage. This isn’t for everyone, espe­cially those with motor plan­ning dif­fi­cul­ties, but for many chil­dren, it is fan­tastic. Here is just one free resource, but there are many avail­able that can be found through a YouTube search.  

Makaton Free Resources

Makaton will not stop your child’s speech devel­op­ment as you are speaking the words for them to hear while signing.

AAC

aac-colorful
Image credit to speakingofspeech.com
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) can be a method to look into while speech is begin­ning to develop. It won’t hinder your child’s speech. Some people assume that for assisted com­mu­ni­ca­tion you need spe­cialised, insur­ance-based equip­ment, but some­times it can simply be apps you can find on lap­tops, cell phones, or tablets. 
If you are on Facebook, a great resource is a group called Ask an AAC User.
You can also find many free resources on AAC.  This link is a good start. A good board-maker here will help your child opti­mise their ability to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tively.
You may have heard of an option called Picture Exchange System (Commonly known as PECS); how­ever, this method can be quite lim­iting as it uses rein­force­ment to make requests, which can limit com­mu­ni­ca­tion. SCERTS rec­om­mends a system which works for all stages of learning.
Your child is taught three basic areas: to recog­nise the names of up to 20 dif­ferent people that they see on a reg­ular basis, the verb describing what they are doing, and then the noun. “Mum makes dinner,”  “Josh rides bike,” “Sarah wants apple.”  This can be a far more pro­duc­tive way of learning lan­guage.  
This is a great link of videos to help learn verbs: A google search of PECS will give you a great variety of free pic­tures and sym­bols you can use and print out. Although I don’t rec­om­mend the system, its always good to get the free stuff.  Remember to use the 3 parts above, person — verb — noun, for optimum effec­tive­ness.
Some chil­dren can have issues, for a variety of rea­sons with moving mus­cles in their mouth. Here are some great exer­cises which will help with both the devel­op­ment of speech but also chewing skills, among other things.

Visual Schedules

A visual schedule uses pic­tures to chart out the steps or events that happen in a day. Many autistic people need to men­tally pre­pare in advance for tran­si­tions and changes, so visual sched­ules can be essen­tial to help child feel reas­sured of what is hap­pening next in a world that is often con­fusing and stressful. 
Good schools will always endeavour to use them, and they can be very ben­e­fi­cial in the home, too. For more infor­ma­tion on visual sched­ules and why they are helpful, click here.   

Language Comprehension

Some chil­dren can present with delays in lan­guage and com­pre­hen­sion. Here are some great activ­i­ties to help! My friend’s web­site, FreeBirdSpeaks, has more infor­ma­tion.

“Wh” Questions

As speech and lan­guage grow, many chil­dren need help with“wh” ques­tions (what, where, who, why).  Home-speech-home offers a great to help them start devel­oping questions-asking skills.  

Semantics

Integrated Treatment Services SLP has handy pic­tures to print out in semantic lan­guage devel­op­ment for explaining why words are related to us. For example, police, ambu­lance, and fire brigade would all be used as related when talking about emer­gency ser­vices and why they may be needed.

Extending and Expanding Language

Speech and lan­guage can be very basic when still learning. Its always good to extend and expand your child’s lan­guage when pos­sible. Extending could be a child saying, “Go to zoo,” and your reply would be, “Yes, we are going to the zoo!” which helps them learn more lan­guage.  An example of expan­sion might be a child saying “eat cheese” and you might say “Yes, we are eating cheese and drinking milk.”

Grammar

Grammar is some­thing everyone needs to learn which helps both speech and lan­guage and reading.  Here is a great free link from Speech And Language Kids with free grammar resources.  
A lot of NHS trusts (in the UK) have excel­lent free resources packs. You will find lots of great resources and activ­i­ties in these, and all for free!

Narrative and Variety Packs

NARRATIVE ACTIVITY PACKS from Black Sheep Press ren’t free, but a great afford­able resource. Another great free resource is “Free Language Stuff” 
Stuttering can be an issue for many kids, Autistic or not.  The good news is, there is so much help out there.  Stutterhelp.org has is a fan­tastic resource here for preschoolers.

Organizing Thoughts

For older chil­dren, text provider Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson has a great link full of print­able orga­nizers to help with your child in organ­ising their thoughts and feel­ings and making plans for school, work, etc.
I would like to thank everyone who has helped me make this article, espe­cially the Grow Salt and SLP Neurodiversity Collective pages on Facebook.

More Help 

Along with speech ther­a­pists,  please remember the best advisers to help your child are autistic people them­selves, and well-informed par­ents can be an aid, too.  Please reach out and ask. A good starting place is the Aspergian Facebook sup­port group, The Aspergian has an article for that, along with other autistic-led groups.
Finally, as men­tioned before, one good alter­na­tive to ABA, is the SCERTS model, which I’m happy to pro­mote here.
Try not to worry, your child will progress and find the right com­mu­ni­ca­tion means, just like any other child.

For more information on ABA try the following articles:

7 Comments

  1. While your intent is to share infor­ma­tion about com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gies, accu­rate por­trayals offers the best help to readers. Your com­ments about PECS being poten­tially “harmful” because rein­force­ment can limit com­mu­ni­ca­tion do not cor­re­spond with abun­dant research. Two pub­li­ca­tions have shown that chil­dren can be taught to use PECS in a manner which encour­ages “Improvisation” or cre­ative use of pictures- (Marckel, Neef & Ferreri, 2006; and Chaabane, Alber-Morgan & DeBar, 2009 with par­ents as teachers). A ran­dom­ized con­trol study involving very young chil­dren with ASD (2.5 yrs old) and using 10 or fewer spoken words showed 19 chil­dren who learned the PECS pro­tocol aver­aged over 84 spoken words 6 months later and totaled over 120 words in 3 more months. It is not helpful to per­pet­uate the nat­ural fear that people have when trying pic­tures as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion modality but thank­fully there are many unbi­ased sources avail­able for par­ents and prac­ti­tioners. I encourage your readers to visit http://www.pecs.com to find up-to-date infor­ma­tion.

    1. Thank you for your response Andy Bondy. So much per­pet­u­a­tion of mis­in­for­ma­tion pre­sented throughout this blog. So sad.

    2. The pic­tures aren’t the issue. The operant con­di­tioning is.

      Operant con­di­tioning has been debunked as an effec­tive tool for teaching lan­guage in animal lan­guage research (and for good reason too — it can’t really teach gen­uine com­mu­ni­ca­tion beyond requests, since requests are directly asso­ci­ated with obtaining a reward). PECS is behind the curve on that one. One does not need operant con­di­tioning to use pic­tures as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion modality.

      And yes, rewarding people for saying things asso­ci­ated with feel­ings IS harmful, since it teaches people to fake cer­tain feel­ings for the reward and not to express gen­uine feel­ings. Especially when the things being rewarded are things like “I love you”. Or other pos­i­tive sen­ti­ments they may not be feeling at the time.

      1. I agree with L above. https://slpndc.org/the-problem-with-pecs/ .

        Also pro­viding evi­dence some­thing works doesn’t mean its eth­ical. ABA is evi­dence based, though the sci­ence behind it often weak and dubious. None of that jus­ti­fies the harm it inflicts on chil­dren.

      2. I can only imagine, L, what the reac­tion would be if I tried to com­pare teaching chil­dren to com­mu­ni­cate with attempts to teach ani­mals… When people study the motion of objects rel­a­tive to each other they invari­ably dis­cover gravity and then describe rules asso­ci­ated with those obser­va­tions, including fac­tors such as mass, dis­tance, etc. When people study the rela­tion­ship between behavior and con­se­quences they invari­ably dis­cover rein­force­ment and then describe rules asso­ci­ated with those obser­va­tions, including fac­tors such a timing, pat­terns, etc. One can chose to not believe in gravity but when one jumps off a building, gravity won’t care- it will influ­ence what hap­pens next. And one can chose to not believe in rein­force­ment but the laws of behavior won’t care either and still influ­ence what hap­pens next. We can dis­cuss how to improve the appli­ca­tion of these laws- including eth­ical issues- without denying they are part of reality. And of course one needs to use rein­force­ment to teach chil­dren how to “express their emo­tions”- and the modality has nothing to do with this lesson.

        1. Te reac­tion to com­pare teaching kids to teaching ani­mals would be, and is, entirely impas­sive — enthu­si­astic, even. In my expe­ri­ence, ABA sup­porters do that all the time. They have in my animal behavior and cog­ni­tion pro­gram. And twice I heard lec­tures from a person who cham­pions TAGteach, which is lit­eral clicker training for autistic kids. And let me tell you, the recep­tion for that is WILDLY enthu­si­astic in these cir­cles. Complete with accu­sa­tions of denying that humans are ani­mals if you say that this is a bad idea.

          And as for the “laws of rein­force­ment”? There is a world of dif­fer­ence between the nat­ural out­comes of things we do nothing to enact, and lit­eral carrot/stick con­trol methods imple­mented by us. Neither are those laws entirely neu­tral — there can be dev­as­tating con­se­quences you didn’t intend. And good things that come from within as well as without. Not to men­tion that the aspects of operant con­di­tioning on’t need to be used more than they are in typ­ical things — ABA, in all its forms, dials this up to 11, and that’s where the prob­lems lie (and the debunking of operant con­di­tioning used in animal lan­guage is operant con­di­tioning in this con­text — not to men­tion that when they used intrinsic moti­va­tion, the only thing where operant con­di­tioning can work on lan­guage, they didn’t deny the ani­mals water and make them request their every food scrap, either).

          And there is another law which behav­ior­ists ignore because it has nothing to do with operant con­di­tioning — the law of learning infor­ma­tion based on what was given. As in, kids hearing a series of words and demands, with none of the adult con­text, will take the things exactly as they heard them, no matter what YOU under­stood the direc­tive to be. Science fic­tion writer Isaac Asimov even addressed this law, in a short story called “Runaround”, which fea­tured a robot who was given orders and had none of the con­text of a human to know how to follow , and so the robot ended up run­ning around in cir­cles non­stop as a result of a con­flict between equally impor­tant direc­tives.

          And while humans might have a better under­standing of par­tic­ular orders, note that many simple things adults under­stand (including how and when to know when to follow orders and take a break) can con­sist of hun­dreds, even thou­sands of mul­tiple shades of imper­a­tives and qual­i­fiers, none of which a young child has — and given the sheer number of these, it is pro­hib­i­tively com­plex to teach these nuances to chil­dren via operant con­di­tioning alone. And lan­guage, con­taining as many words and sen­tences and shades of meaning as it has, is one of those things — and so you get kids who don’t really under­stand how to say things or will say things to mean “stop this” or “give me a reward” that have nothing to do with that meaning. And that’s just the tip of the ice­berg of con­se­quences expe­ri­enced when lessons that require nuance are spoon-fed to kids sans con­text.

Talk to us... what are you thinking?