How can I get my autistic child to talk?
want to get them to talk? Start by figuring out what they like
The first step in any good talking program is to figure out what motivates the learner. Everyone is motivated by something. For adults, it’s often money or time with friends and family. For kids, the options are often endless. Whatever it is your kid likes, make sure you have it on hand. Then use that to teach your child to talk.
Think about typically developing children. From a very early age, babies will imitate their parents. They babble in ways that sound like language, they move their hands in ways that resemble their parent’s hand movements. Believe it or not, imitation is the foundation of language.
So if you want to get your child talking, first start by getting them to imitate you.
Using the reinforcers you identified in step 1, teach your child to copy your motor movements. clap your hands, raise your hands up, lower them down, do jazz hands, dance, jump, spin around. Whatever you do, encourage your child to do it with you, and then reward them for copying you by giving them their preferred reinforcer.
In the Imitation phase, you taught your child to copy your motor movements. Now it’s time to get them copying the sounds you make. You want to keep using those reinforcers to encourage them to copy your sounds. Start with the basic ones, like /b/, /m/, /d/, and /p/.
And make it fun, be creative. Whatever you do, don’t sit your child down at a table and force them to repeat sounds over and over. ad nauseam. Nobody’s going to like that and your child will find the activity aversive. Furthermore, and this is important, make sure you’re really praising your child with lots of “good job!” and “awesome!” comments. That social praise will come in very handy in the future.
talking about mands
Once you have your child imitating your sounds, it’s time to step it up a notch. Manding is a fancy ABA word for “requesting” or “demanding.” When we use words to get something we want, we call this “using a mand” or “manding.”
Now you already know what your child likes from step 1 above, what they find reinforcing. Now the task is to associate a specific sound with that reinforcer.
For example, if your child Timmy likes hot wheels cars, teach him to say “car” in exchange for receiving a car or spending some time playing with a car. The more you do this, the more Timmy will learn that saying “car” means he gets to play with a car.
You can apply this principle to anything… asking for snacks, playtime, breaks, etc. Just make sure you’re reinforcing it early and often.
Talking about tacts
Once you’ve taught your child to request things by manding, the next step is to teach tacting. You can think of “tacting” as labeling items. A tact isn’t a request for something (that’s a mand). Rather, a tact is naming an item.
Tacting is where vocabulary really starts to expand.
Remember in the imitation phase where you were always giving your child tons of praise? Well, this is where it’s going to come in handy. You can teach tacting by giving that social praise (good job! high five! way to go! etc.). When you see a common item, say a teddy bear, you can say “Teddy!” and when Timmy copies you, follow it up with the social praise. If you’ve done a good job with social praise all along, Timmy should find social praise reinforcing, and therefore remember that naming the teddy bear results in praise.
Now you’re on your way to talking!
Teaching carrier phrases
Carrier phrases are things like “I want _____.” They’re phrases we often use when we talk. You can teach carrier phrases by requiring a little bit more each time your child talks.
Maybe last time Timmy said “juice” so this time you want Timmy to say “want juice.” Then you give him the juice. Take it slow and don’t rush it. Talking takes time to learn for everyone, and it will for your child too.
By requiring a little bit more each time, we’re shaping the behavior/language toward what we want. We’re teaching Timmy that, if he uses words to say what we want, then the entire world is open to him. And that’s a great lesson to learn!
Other talking skills
There are many other talking skills covered by ABA. They get pretty complex, and we’d recommend you consult with a BCBA like us at SOAR Behavior Services. But everything we covered so far should be a good start in teaching your child to talk.