How to Improve Communication with Autism

Improving Communication for Your Autistic Speech Clients

Your role as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) involves helping someone communicate through speech by making sounds, speaking words, and improving articulation, but we know it involves so much more, especially with autistic children. 

At RDI®, our focus includes improved communication which helps to build dynamic thinking, making optimal decisions in changing environments, which is not accomplished solely within a classroom, or a therapy session (pulled out from school or the home environment), but rather through everyday life situations involving the parent guide as the most important part of the collaborative team (team = parent, therapist, teacher, and SLP). 

Improved communication gives the autistic child the ability to express their basic wants and needs, especially as they think their way through typical life situations with the participation of the parent guide, which sets the foundation for obtaining independence in life.

Related: Developing Mindful Communication

Language or Communication?

Most autistic children need help with understanding, recognizing, and reciprocally participating in both verbal and non-verbal communication and cues (gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, etc.). 

Some autistic children are unable to develop fluent verbal language, but they can be guided throughout the day in their natural home environment to obtain an understanding of and model communicative gestures and facial expressions. Communication is also improved through the use of pictures and technology (communication devices or applications). 

A mother recently shared a simple example of improved communication with her 9-year-old autistic child, Sam:

Sam appeared to be agitated, but he is non-verbal, so he could not say what was wrong. 

His mother shrugged her shoulders, made eye contact, and patiently waited after asking, “Sam, do you need something? Whatever it is, I will be here waiting for you to show me.” She knew that Sam’s SLP was in the process of teaching him sign language. 

Sam then signed that he wanted a snack. He had not signed this at home before. 

Sam saw his mother’s expression change as she acknowledged his request, and she rewarded him with a snack. He learned communication from this experience. He learned to ask through sign language. He learned that he could take his time and that he did not need to feel frustrated. He learned that his mother had patience.   

This is an example of how a small breakthrough can occur with a non-verbal autistic child. Several things took place – engagement, signage, patience, facial expression, gesturing, and eye contact. 

Keep in mind, some autistic children are high-functioning and verbal, but they often have trouble with comprehension and putting stories together.

They may also lack in social communication skills, and your role as an SLP is to help the child develop an understanding of language and communication, which teaches them to communicate in a format that is structured and has the timing and response that is conducive to development and independence. 

Improve Communication through Engagement

Autistic children advantageously improve in communication through typical life moments and guided life-approaches. The more they learn, the more they engage and WANT to engage. Engagement is an important component of communication and relationship, as well as quality of life and independence. 

The parent guide should hold the most substantive everyday role in improving communication, but everyone (you – the SLP, the parent, and other teachers in the child’s life) involved in improving the communication must be on the same page with the approach. 

Related: Speech Therapy Goals for Autism

Approaches that empower communicative development with an autistic child:

Everyday environments. Learning outside of the classroom, but in a familiar environment, such as the home.

Everyday activities. Learning through activities that take place naturally, as well as planned activities—not just during speech therapy.

Favorite belongings. Include preferred toys or belongings in activities to encourage association in the child. 

Patience without Prompting. Avoid adding pressure to the child. Communicate to the child, through words and expression, “I can wait, so take your time.” Then, give them time without pressuring or prompting. 

Reduce distractions. Reduce background noise and distractions to avoid confusion and over-stimulation, which can reduce the effectiveness of any learning environment, especially in autistic people.

Age-Appropriate Voice. Use an age-appropriate voice and tone suited to the circumstances. Not only will this help the autistic child understand what you are communicating but will help them model age-appropriate voice and tone. 

Child gesturing. Encourage and prompt the child to initiate teaching or leading you by gesturing or indicating interest in an object or an action. 

Gesturing is communicative (to others as well as to self). We naturally gesture, even when we are alone. An example of this is face-palming, which is an automatic reaction to the thought, “I cannot believe (I/you) did that!”  

Neurotypical people inherently gesture as they mature. Gesture becomes a form of non-verbal dialect as if we are talking to ourselves when no one is around. An autistic child typically lacks gesturing. Teaching autistic children to imitate gestures through natural interactions results in increases in spontaneous gesture use. 

Rewarding and Positive Reinforcement. Reciprocate the child’s communication, and reward with something that they desire. This does not need to be candy or a toy, it can simply be something that provides positive reinforcement to the autistic child, such as sharing an enthusiastic thumb’s up and saying, “Look what you did!”  

Watch these before and after encouraging videos between an autistic child, Lucy, and her mentor, Jo, “Lucy’s progress with social communication and interaction (and her newly emerging use of gesture) is plain to see.”

Improving (Not Curing) Communication in Autism

The best communication experiences with an autistic child will develop with the involvement of parents, in the child’s natural environment, with approaches that are fine-tuned and shared amongst the family team, therapists, teachers, and you (the SLP). 

Your role is to not “cure” the child of autism but to improve communication which bolsters the autistic child’s growth and development and therefore helps to set and strengthen a foundation that encourages independent living.  

Would you like more information about the impact the RDI® Model has on speech therapy, communication and your autistic clients? Sign up below to receive information on the training program and how it will benefit your practice!


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