An inability to communicate effectively can prevent students with Autism from accessing their education. It may also lead to frustration and interfering behaviors that impede communication even further.
At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), our Clinical Directors, as well as our behavioral health specialists, occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), and speech-language pathologists (SLPs), have extensive experience working with non-verbal students, as well as students with Autism. We know that with the right supports in place, these students can successfully learn in the least restrictive environment.
In complex cases, PTS therapists can also reach out to our Clinical Directors for support and direction. Here are just a few therapy activities we might suggest to help autistic students in your special education program build language skills.
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Give Students Choices
Giving students choices throughout the day will provide an opportunity to build a routine that meets their needs and reduces anxiety. It also prompts students to naturally identify and express their wants and needs.
When offering choices, you’ll want to be sure to give students just two options to eliminate confusion. Show the student each object—ensuring that it is something relevant to their age group or interests—then demonstrate the words or gestures for each choice and prompt the student to repeat and make a choice.
Here are some examples:
- Do you want to color with the blue or green crayon?
- Do you want to read this book or that book?
- Do you want to sit here or there?
- Do you want to play with this toy or that toy?
- Do you want to play this game or that game?
Use Sensory Bins to Help Students Describe Textures, Feelings, and Emotions
Start by having students play with sensory bins. You can describe what they’re feeling using descriptive words like “smooth”, “hard”, “gritty”, “wet”, etc. This can introduce the student to descriptive words that may broaden their vocabulary.
You may also want to use these sensory bins to help students learn to identify and express their emotions. For example, you can put together a box of materials with different textures. Help the student align different emotions with the textures they’re touching. Sandpaper, for example, can mean frustrated and cotton balls can mean happy.
Help the student identify the correct emotion through pictures or cue cards or by modeling the emotions through your own facial expressions and prompting the student to imitate.
Play Games that Promote Language Learning
Matching and sorting games are an excellent way to help younger students identify objects that are the same or different while also teaching students new words and expressions. Try matching games, like Go Fish or Old Maid, or create your own cards and have students identify matching pairs. As a bonus, you can theme the cards you create to match with your students’ interests or fascinations.
Red Light, Green Light is another game that can help students with Autism learn basic commands. To play, line students up and explain that they should move forward when you say, “Green Light,” and stop when you say, “Red Light.” Be sure to offer rewards for positive responses. This game is also an ideal opportunity to give students a “brain break” and incorporate some movement into the day.
Get Creative with Music, Art, and Storytelling
Music can be highly therapeutic for students and teens with Autism, while also helping them develop their language and speech abilities. It can also help to calm the student and reduce anxiety. Have students listen to music they find interesting and encourage students to sing along in any way they can to simple songs as part of a group.
For students who benefit from visual communication, give them an outlet for expression through activities like painting. For a cleaner option, the students can also draw on an app on a tablet. You can even ask the student to describe a particular emotion through visual art as they would when interacting with a sensory bin.
Try Storytelling Solo or Group Activities
Middle schoolers and high schoolers with Autism can practice expressing themselves through impromptu storytelling activities, too. Start with a list of ideas or plots and ask the students to build on them. This encourages their imagination while also requiring them to find the right words to express their ideas.
Storytelling can be completed as a group activity, too. Simply have the students sit in a circle and take turns creating the next line in the story. If you decide to make this a group activity, be sure to pick participants who all feel comfortable with each other.
Roleplay Everyday Situations and Emotions
Roleplay basic social situations like interacting with a cashier at a supermarket to provide students with the opportunity to practice the appropriate responses to these situations. This activity is natural for prompting students to verbalize what they want and need. In addition to improving language skills, roleplaying everyday situations helps students practice social skills and learn social norms.
You can also play a game of emotional charades to help teens with Autism identify and express different emotions. Here’s how it works:
- The teen will pull an emotion written on a piece of paper out of a hat
- Show the student an example of the emotion through videos, photos, or your own expressions
- Encourage the student to express the emotion
- Take turns with the student and have the student identify the emotions you express when it’s your turn to pull an emotion from the hat
Consider AAC Tools for Non-Verbal Students with Autism
It’s important to remember that not all non-verbal students with Autism will be able to vocalize their wants and needs. For those students, you may want to consider an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system. These systems allow non-verbal students to communicate using alternative methods, like:
- Sign Language
- Facial expressions
- Body language
- Communication boards or picture binders
- Written messages
Some students may also require AAC software like speech-generating devices. In this case, the student may require an AAC evaluation. An AAC evaluation allows evaluators to assess the AAC system that’ll be most beneficial to the student in their classroom and home environment.
SLPs at PTS have experience working with non-verbal students with Autism who require AAC software. We can also offer guidance on how to get students in your school an AAC evaluation.
PTS Can Help Your Students with Autism who Need to Build Language Skills
Being unable to express needs and wants in the classroom can lead to frustration, communication breakdowns, and meltdowns in non-verbal students. Offer these students the support they need by using these therapy activities to engage non-verbal students in the special education classroom.
With PTS, you’ll have the ongoing support of our Clinical Directors, who can assist with the most complex cases. Contact PTS today to find out more about our open SLP, OT, PT, and many other positions.