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Support understanding of language

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    People with autism may find it difficult to understand the complexities of language. Therefore, you should use short sentences and avoid using idioms and sarcasm when interacting with your child. You should also use visual cues when talking about a change, even small ones.

    Use visual cues

    Show your child objects or real pictures related to the activity to aid understanding and anticipation of what is happening and create predictability when things change. Visuals can also be used to remind your child where to go in their setting. Use visuals consistently e.g. always show your child a photo of the pool when it’s time for swimming etc.

    A visual timetable will let your child know what they are meant to be doing during their day and also let your child know the order in which activities happen.

    Keep your child’s environment organised and structured. This will help your child stay calm, feel safe and put them in a great mood for learning. It also means that your child will know what to do in each part of the setting or at home.

    Adults to provide your child with opportunities to develop his/her independence skills. It is really important that adults help your child learn how to do things by him/herself.

    Use visual support strategies to develop understanding, particularly for longer instructions or sequences of information. Visual support should also be used as an anchor for starting conversation or as a framework for storytelling (e.g. a photo about what the child has done at the weekend).

    Keep sentences short and use key words

    Your child may struggle to understand spoken language. Use key words or short sentences when telling them something. Go slow, stress key words and show with the use of objects or real pictures to support what you are saying.

    Allow extra processing time for your child to respond to instructions and formulate language. Break verbal instructions and information down. Chunk information into steps.

    Ask questions to support your child’s ability to talk about his/ her immediate environment but help him/ her to develop descriptive and functional vocabulary. For example, questions requiring him/ her to:

    • Find an object by function (e.g. “what will you eat yoghurt with?”)
    • Categorise (e.g. “which other one is a ‘food?”)
    • Give examples linked to categories (e.g. “what other ‘food’ could we have?”)
    • Understand concepts (e.g. “how many grapes have we got?”, “which car is big?”)
    • Complete a sentence (e.g. “you’re cleaning the table with a…”)
    • Recall information (e.g. “put your lunch bag on the bottom of the trolley”- “where should you put your lunch bag?”, “what goes on the trolley?”)

    Ask questions that support the development of your child’s understanding. Try to ask questions that require him/ her to make a prediction about what might happen next, recall a sequence of what happened or to suggest what a character might say. Be aware that you may need to a model an answer first for him/ her.

    Be aware that your child may be listening even if not looking at you.
    When you talk to your child, keep instructions short and simple e.g. don’t ask your child to do too many things at once. When giving your child instructions check that s/he knows what s/he is supposed to do by asking them to repeat them back.

    Be aware that your child may interpret comments literally so explain any idioms or abstract language to him (e.g. “it’s getting too noisy in here” means “please be quiet”). You could also support your child with understanding different idioms by occasionally talking about a particular idiom together and then writing it down with its meaning into a notebook. For ideas of what to include, you could refer to this website on idioms for children.

    You may also find the following illustrated books helpful in helping your child understand figurative speech:
    ‘It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions’ by Michael Barton; ‘What Did You Say? What Do You Mean? An Illustrated Guide to Understanding Metaphors’ by Jude Welton.

    Encourage your child to ask questions, seek clarification when required using comprehension monitoring cue cards to teach key phrases “I don’t understand”, “Can you say it again slowly?”, “Can you say it a different way?”

    Be explicit when your child needs to act differently e.g. hands on knees rather than don’t touch.

    Try to use concrete questions to scaffold your child’s communication with you.

    Helping your child to understand language can be challenging, but taking extra time, using plain-speaking language, and implementing short phrases is beneficial for their development.

    If you are looking for further assistance with your child’s understanding of language, please contact one of our therapists

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