By: Angela Nelson
We talked in the last post about building vocabulary, now it’s time to teach your child with autism how to speak in simple sentences. Last post we talked about the importance of using a set of realistic photos as visual prompts to help students learn various nouns, occupations, and emotions. This stage of language development can feel repetitive and basic, focusing only on learning single-word responses. However, when a child with autism begins to gain expressive language skills, it’s an exciting time to watch language emerge and leads the way for speaking simple sentences.
After a child can say several single words when presented with a picture, the next step is to take these single word answers and turn them into complete sentences.
To develop sentences the key is to start simple. As a first step teach the child to use an article along with the word. For example, when showing the child a picture card move toward an answer of “an apple” or “a car.” Once the child has mastered this step it’s time to teach them “It is an apple” or “It is a car.”
As you begin to teach your child to use full sentences, you will need to use prompts in the beginning. The most common method is verbal modeling. But it is important to fade the verbal prompt as soon as possible. To help your child answer in full sentences without using a verbal prompt, you can make some simple visual cues.
Written cue cards are a great method to remind your student to use full sentences. For example, if you show your child a picture of a car, and ask “What is it?” your child is likely to answer “car.” To prompt your child to use the article “a” with the word car, you can start by putting a cue card in front of the picture with the word “a” on it. Have your child touch each card (the “a” card and then the picture card) as they say the words “a car.” The next step would be to add cue cards for “It is a car.” When your child starts to grasp the concept of speaking multi-word sentences, you can begin to fade the visual cue card prompts.
Another important type of sentence that your child will need to learn to use is a Requesting Sentence. When your child learns to use communication to make requests and get their needs met, it will reduce their frustration level, which will in turn reduce the frequency of tantrums and outbursts.
To teach this skill begin by sorting through your picture cards to find pictures of items your child likes and that you have available to give to them. Food items are often the most successful to start with. For example: Cheese, Raisins, Juice, Popcorn, and Apple. Stick a magnet to the back of each picture and place the pictures on the refrigerator. Write the word “I” on one index card and the word “want” on another and place those on the refrigerator also. When you know your child wants a specific food (as most parents often do), pull the corresponding picture down into the “I want” sentence. Use the visual cues as a prompt to help your child remember to use the full sentence to request their desired food. As always, you should fade the prompts as your student begins to master this full sentence activity
A Note on Using Cue Cards to Prompt
You may think: Why am I using written words to prompt my child? He can’t speak well, so what makes anyone think he can read?
The cards are not meant for your child to read. They are merely place markers. It makes as much sense to use the words as anything else. However, you could also use something as simple and nondescript such as blocks or blank cards for your child to touch as they say the words. The idea is to give your child a visual reminder to speak the extra words. In fact there are schools of thought suggesting that if you tie spoken words to physical activity that it creates more neural pathways for the words to attach to. Regardless, you can choose to use the word cards, or to use a more neutral object. Decide what works best for your child.
Angela Nelson received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism and special needs curriculum products since 1997.