Effective Communication with Children and Young Adults with Autism

by Lisa Goldy, graduate student in educational psychology at the University of Utah

April 2008

My name is Lisa Goldy, and I am a graduate student in educational psychology at the University of Utah. As part of my graduate program, I completed my internship hours as a school psychologist, where I had the opportunity to work with children and young adults of varying abilities. I recently defended research that looked at the most effective communication interventions for children and young adults with autism.

As many people may be aware from the number of public service announcements on television, autism is a specific area of focus right now. According to the Centers for Disease Control (2007), the average prevalence for Autism Spectrum Disorders in the United States is currently one in every 150 children. By no means does every child diagnosed with one of these developmental disorders have the same needs or skills, but the inability to use language to effectively communicate with others is one of the core deficits for many of these individuals. In fact, some researchers and practitioners estimate that 50% of individuals diagnosed with autism will remain nonverbal. As researchers and practitioners, this presents us with many questions. What does the autism research tell us about communication interventions for children with autism? What are special education teachers doing to help children with autism to communicate? How are parents communicating with their children with autism? In other words, what really works to help children with autism develop language?

Since the research regarding various teaching techniques and interventions for children with autism is not readily available for interpretation by service providers, caregivers, or educators, I decided to consolidate the outcomes found in a portion of the autism literature. Without question, the results indicate that combining sign language with speech, as Rachel does in Signing Time, is one of the most effective ways to teach children with autism how to communicate with others. Since many nonverbal children with autism appear to have difficulty understanding spoken language, using sign language may be more accessible because it is visual and gesture-like. Parents and teachers can mold or manually prompt a child’s hands into appropriate sign configurations, and say the word while signing it, which may help trigger or facilitate speech development.

My daughter attends a preschool, where approximately 50% of the children are “typically developing” and 50% have been diagnosed with a disability or developmental delay such as autism. Sign language has helped the children in her class communicate with each other. My husband teaches an inclusive recreation class in which his students have the opportunity to help with the local Special Olympics. The students who know American Sign Language (ASL) love the opportunity to communicate with the athletes in a common language.

As the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, I seek activities and environments that I believe will enrich my child’s life. I am thankful that she was given several Signing Time DVDs as a gift from a pediatric nurse, who was using Signing Time with her adopted daughter. I love that we have learned some ASL together, and I hope she continues to ask me, “How do I sign _______?” I would like to become more proficient in ASL, because knowing the little that I do has helped me to have a richer life both personally and professionally. Resources such as Signing Time are invaluable for families and may be especially beneficial for families of individuals with autism.

Overview of Autism Research and Meta Analysis compiled by Lisa Goldy

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