Autism and Language Development: How Parents Can Help Their Children Communicate

As children begin to speak in words, phrases, and eventually sentences, increasing their vocabulary becomes more important. There are many ways to do so naturally with your child. For a child with autism, the condition may be accompanied by language learning difficulties. The most important caveat is not only how many words you expose your child to, but the quality of what you introduce. In this blog, we will outline some strategies for language development and building communication for children with autism.

Levels of Vocabulary

Vocabulary follows a three-tiered model.

  • The first tier includes everyday vocabulary that your child is often exposed to, especially in conversation. This typically includes things like nouns and simple adjectives.
  • The second tier includes more challenging or sophisticated words that are typically found in academic vocabulary.
  • The third tier includes more specific words that correlate with specific school subjects.

Most children are easily exposed to tier one vocabulary but would benefit from a parent specifically introducing and teaching tier two vocabulary. Teaching tier two vocabulary will often require defining the word, explaining it in detail, and offering words that are like the new word and words that mean the opposite of the new word. These steps help increase understanding and comprehension.

A Parent’s Influence

Parents have a large influence on their child’s language learning and vocabulary. For children with autism who might have delayed speech, parent involvement is imperative to language building. Conversations and interactions that occur every day in the home set the stage for your child’s language development. Making the most of these opportunities can make a huge impact on your child’s abilities.

Rowe (2012) found that a child’s ability to read is predicted by the size of the child’s vocabulary. Rowe had other interesting findings, as well.

  • She found that the number of words a parent used a year earlier influenced a child’s vocabulary at the age of 30 months. Children between the ages of one and two benefited from a lot of language spoken around them.
  • Rowe also found that more difficult and sophisticated vocabulary use between the ages of two to three years of age influenced the child’s vocabulary at the age of 42 months.
  • Finally, she found that using narratives and explanations with children ages three to four influenced the child’s vocabulary at the age of 54 months.

Her research shows that the quantity of words spoken is not the only predictor of language outcomes in children. Quality is especially important for the two- to three-year-old age range. Speaking to your child in a way that is just beyond their current language usage can push them to make more strides in their language use and comprehension.

Shoot for the SSTaRs

ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings is a guidebook from The Hanen Centre. It introduces the concept of shoot for the SSTaRS to naturally introduce words into book reading and daily activities for children.

The acronym stands for Stress (stress the new word to focus the child’s attention), Show (show the child what the word means), Tell (tell the child what the word means), Relate (relate the word to the child’s personal experiences and knowledge, as well as to other words and situations), and Say (say it again – and read the book again).

They suggest using this strategy for children who can already speak in sentences and have a basic vocabulary.

Stressing the Word

Stressing the word means to highlight it during reading. You can ask the child if they know what the word means. Next, show the child what the word means by using your facial expressions, gestures, or play-acting. You can also change your tone of voice or how you say the word to reflect what it means. Tell the child what the word means by describing it and giving specific details about the word. Explain what the word is and what the word is not, almost like giving an example and a non-example for how the word can and cannot be used.

If you can relate the word to something the child already knows, this can increase their understanding of the new word. You can also relate the word to words your child already knows and to other situations you could use the word in. Lastly, say the word again. The more times your child hears the word, the more likely they are to use it if they understand what it means.

Repeated exposure and conversations are what deepen a child’s understanding of vocabulary. The child does not have to say the word to prove that they understand it.

For an example, take the word “strenuous”

  • First, point to a picture that illustrates “strenuous,” maybe a picture of someone climbing a steep hill, or trying to pick up something very heavy.
  • Next, tell them the category of the word. Something like “strenuous is a word that describes how difficult something is.”
  • Next, use other words that help explain the meaning. You could say “strenuous is another way to say very difficult or very hard.” Provide details about the word’s meaning, such as “picking up something very heavy is strenuous, running a marathon is a strenuous activity, climbing up a hill that is steep and high is also strenuous.”
  • Next, relate the word to the child’s personal experiences or background knowledge. You could ask questions like, “Can you think of a time when you did something that was strenuous or watched someone do something strenuous?” You could also say, “Remember when we cheered on daddy when he ran a marathon? That was a long race that was very strenuous for daddy to run.”
  • Lastly, you could compare and contrast word meanings. You could say, “Strenuous means the same thing as tough, hard, and demanding. It does not mean easy or effortless.”

Shoot for the SSTaRS is an efficient way to review new words that come up in a book or activity in order to use it as a learning opportunity. This strategy also encourages communication and conversation skills between you as a parent and your child.

Around the House

Incorporating new language can be done during your daily routine with your child. You could introduce a “word of the day” where you teach your child a new word and its definition. You could also use the word in a sentence and then have your child make up their own sentence. Your child could even learn how to spell and write the word if those skills are appropriate for them and their age.

Especially for children who can read, you could label items around your house with post-it notes. This would expose them to the words and could even increase their functional communication when they can ask for specific things by name. As your child’s reading skills grow, you could also add adjectives to the labels such as “plastic chair” or “striped rug” so that they learn even more words about their environment.

Reading and Comprehension

Even if your child is able to read independently, children still love to listen to stories. Not just stories or books from school, read books to them that they have an interest in or are too hard for them to read on their own. There are all kinds of options to read to children including comics, newspapers, and children’s informational articles that they may enjoy.

Asking your child questions during reading and especially after reading can increase their reading comprehension. Using “WH questions” – who, what, where, when, why, and how can get children thinking about the different aspects of the story. Once your child can answer these kinds of questions, moving into questions like the main character, main idea, and setting may be appropriate. Some children may even be ready to summarize the story and repeat it back to you. If you read stories with new words and topics, this will encourage the child to use these same new words in their retellings and question answers.

Improving Writing Skills to Increase Vocabulary

Children often have to write about topics that are not of interest to them at school. Encourage your child to free write about whatever they wish. No need to correct them on spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Making writing fun and enjoyable for children is important at any age. If you read a story together that the child likes, you could ask them to re-write the story for you or add on to the story with additional information of their own.

You could also see if the child would like to keep a journal, where they could write about their day, their feelings, or anything else. If your child wishes to share, they could read the journal entries to you or to the family to practice both reading and writing together.

Learning Through Play

Children can learn and pick up language when it is presented through play. Pretend play and games can expose children to new words, phrases, and turn-taking conversation. Playing with your child can help improve their ability to play with their siblings and other children. There are many word games available, like scrabble and Bananagrams that some children may be ready for. Reading the rules or writing out new rules for a game could also be appropriate for some children.

When you are playing with a child, and they make spontaneous verbalizations, responding to what they say with a comment or question can encourage their language. For example, if a child says, “it’s a truck” you could ask, “where is the truck” or say, “that’s a big red truck.” This also encourages conversational turn-taking and joint attention to the task.

You can also verbalize what you are doing in play. For example, you could say, “I’m driving my car to the doctor.” Some children may respond with a “why” question, especially toddlers. You could then respond with an explanation such as “I have a fever” or “My stomach hurts.” Explanations and narratives during play is a natural way to demonstrate language.

Some children may especially enjoy playing a game such as charades or Pictionary. You could make your own list of words for the child to act out in charades or draw in Pictionary. This could be wording the child has been exposed to but could use practice on drawing or acting out the meaning. You can also participate and have the child guess your words. This helps make learning new words fun and can promote the understanding of the word rather than just recognizing the word but not understanding the meaning. “I Spy” can also expand a child’s vocabulary by describing where the item is in the house or on the page of a book. Have them do the same for you. This can help introduce and improve understanding of prepositions. “Simon Says” can help children follow multistep directions and directional words like left, right, above, below, etc. Making learning fun and using new vocabulary in games are natural ways to expose your child to language in a relaxed setting.

Children, especially younger children, can learn through singing songs and adding verses to songs. You could sing one line then have them sing the next. Some stories and songs could be drawn or written about as well.

Using Reinforcement to Promote Language Development

We want to encourage children to learn and use language. Any time your child uses a new word or uses a word in a new way, give them praise for doing so. Call attention to it by saying something like, “Wow, James, I love how you used the word slippery in a sentence! You’re right, the soap is slippery.”

Positive reinforcement, which is adding something to the environment that encourages the behavior to increase in the future, is easy to implement for children who like praise. Giving praise (adding it to the environment) to a child who then continues to use new words is an example of positive reinforcement. You can also provide reinforcement by giving children what they request when they are using a new word to ask for something. This is a naturally occurring reinforcer that you can use with your child to encourage language development.

Increasing Vocabulary in Your Child

As the research has shown, parent or caregiver language in the household has a large effect on a child’s language development. Their academics, reading skills, test scores, socialization, and communication is all impacted by parent interaction in childhood. Children who have a broad vocabulary score higher and perform better more often in school. Engaging with your child naturally, encouraging reading, and conversing with your child are all effective ways to promote language learning in your child.

Reaching Out for Help

If you have any concerns about your child’s vocabulary and language abilities or you feel that you or your child could use more support, reach out to Behavioral Innovations staff and we’d be glad to help you. Our staff is trained in helping children improve their language and vocabulary skills as well as other skills such as daily living and social skills.



  • Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.
  • Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774.

Content Credits: Lisa Freed & Heather Gilmore

Previous ArticleA Parent's Guide to Toilet Training a Child with Autism Next ArticleNon-Speaking Autism: How to Improve Communication Skills in Children with ASD