One behavior characteristic often associated with autism in children is the child's ability to mimic words and phrases and the child's inability to use them for functional communication. However, studies have shown that language development in autistic children can be assisted and encouraged through play. In this article, you will learn some suggestions and ideas for using play to encourage language development in autistic children.
- Observe the child's interests when it comes to toys. The child's interest in a particular toy or in a particular set of toys is your starting point for encouraging language development. You will need to widen your eyes a bit so that you can accurately observe. Usually, your indicator for interest will be the frequency of the child's use of the toy.
- Study how the child plays with the toys. This is a continuation of the first suggestion. You will want to take note of the child's specific interest in the toys, as well as in the child's strong interest in a specific use of the toys while playing. For example, an autistic child likes food toys. You can play with the child using the food toys. Try placing the food in containers, or buying and selling food, or cooking food. As you play, you will eventually discover a peculiar use of the toys, a specific use that the child finds very interesting and engaging. For example, if the child shows so much amusement and enjoyment when you pretend to cook the food, you may be able to use that particular activity to teach the child functional vocabulary.
- Encourage the child to mimic your words while you play. For example, you can say, "Eat apple" while pretending to eat a toy apple. Or, you can say, "Cook eggs" while pretending to fry eggs on the plastic pan. Do this every time you play with the toy. The goal is to enable the child to associate the words with the items and the acts.
- Gradually lessen your word/phrase prompts. After weeks of guided mimicking, you can check if the association is complete. When the child plays with the toys with you, look at the toy and wait for the child to produce the words that you taught him or her in the previous weeks. If the child has difficulty, provide clues, such as saying the first syllable of the words or phrase. The child should be able to finish the whole phrase. Then, proceed to your make-believe cooking or eating. Because the child has strong interest in this specific play activity, he or she will have better likelihood of forming associations between the phrases and the acts.
- Broaden the vocabulary. Once the child succeeds in building the associations, add new words or phrases, following a similar technique as described. You can also use this stage as an opportunity to learn information questions such as "What is it?"
Play is actually more than just an enjoyment for children. Especially for autistic children, it can be used as an educational environment for encouraging the development of their functional vocabulary.