Children with Autism Spectrum: Communication and Behavior

Woman holding drawn smiley face in front of faceEarly in my career, I had the pleasure of working with Mary. She was a young lady who, due to a stroke at birth, was severely cognitively and physically disabled. She was wheelchair-bound and could walk only with physical assistance. She had no use of her left hand, and only partial use of her right hand. She was blind and nonverbal. Basically, when something was not right-now world—such as when she was hungry, needed use the bathroom, or didn’t feel well—she cried loudly and hit herself over the head with her operational hand until the problem was fixed. As her staff, I had to work through everything that could possibly be wrong to figure out what she was upset about. She spent a lot of time crying and hitting herself on her head due to our inability to communicate effectively.

After several months of watching her spend a good chunk of her day hitting herself, I got the bright idea that if she could simply communicate “yes or no,” we might be able to do better work together. I figured maybe she could tap her operational hand once for yes and twice for no. I took my idea to our behavior specialist, who patiently explained to me that teaching yes and no signals to a nonverbal individual is perhaps one of the hardest things to teach. She did like my idea to improve Mary’s communication, though.

Together, we came up with a plan. We got a four-button communication device and programmed it with a female voice to say the following things: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, more please, and bathroom please. We figured these four requests covered the basic things Mary wanted throughout a day. To get around the blindness, we attached different textured items to each button so that Mary could feel the difference between them. I then spent almost a year using a behavior-shaping protocol to teach her how to use the device and discriminate between the buttons and make these four simple requests.

It was slow going, but eventually Mary learned how to use the device independently. If that were the end of my story, that would’ve been a pretty awesome outcome to things; however, the results of this intervention went far beyond my greatest hopes. As Mary mastered the use of the device, she stopped having tantrums and hitting herself all the time. This went from a several-times-a-day occurrence to less than once a week, if that. In fact, she started smiling much of the time. By allowing Mary to communicate those four simple phrases, we dramatically improved the quality of her life. It was from this experience that I learned the important link between communication and behavior.

An Important Link
Technically, communication is a form of behavior. More importantly for our purposes, however, is that behavior is communication. Imagine how it might feel for you if you couldn’t ask for even the simplest things. How might you behave? As disruptions and difficulties in communication is one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum issues, treating communication should be a top priority for these individuals. By improving communication, we can greatly reduce the frequency and intensity of challenging behaviors.

When confronted with your child’s difficult behaviors, it is often helpful to ask what it is your child is trying to say with his or her behavior. For example, if you see me get up, go to the kitchen, and make a sandwich, you can safely infer from my behavior that I am hungry. Figuring out what your child is communicating with his or her behavior is a big step in figuring out the function of the behavior (Step 1 in the behavior-change process).

Another thing to keep in mind is the nature of the communicative difficulty. Communication consists of two parts, expressive and receptive. Expressive communication refers to one’s ability to say things to others. This is perhaps the most common disruption that occurs. Problems in this area lead to difficulty asking for things and gaining attention. Problems can range from a complete lack of verbal ability (such as what I see in my youngest autistic child) to limited verbal ability (such as my older autistic child who has a few verbal phrases, but they are hard to understand) to nonfunctional language (such as a person who speaks clearly but simply repeats or parrots what is said to him or her). Problems in receptive language refer to one’s ability (or inability) to understand what is being said. This is more prevalent in head injury and stroke conditions.

Often, autistic children will have poor expressive language but perfectly fine receptive language. They struggle with telling others what they want, but understand much of what is being said in their presence. This can lead to behaviors related to frustration about not being able to ask for desired items or attention. I often also see behaviors related to frustration because others assume lack of language means lack of understanding. By improving communication through teaching expressive language, a child like this can ask for what he or she wants and can also demonstrate understanding. This will reduce behaviors related to getting what he or she wants, and improves how others relate to that individual. It’s a win-win situation.

How Do I Teach Communication?
There are many systems of communication out there. I will review the pros and cons of specific systems in a future article. However, here is a brief list of some ideas you can try with your child:

  • Signs and gestures: Chances are if your child has communication issues, he/she is probably doing this already, but it is something that can be improved upon.
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): Check out for the formal system. In short, you can create a book of pictures that your child can learn to use to communicate.
  • Writing: Some individuals can write what they want to say even if they can’t say it.
  • Talking devices: These consist of special devices the child can activate to say prerecorded things.
  • Tablet apps: There are a number of apps for the iPad and other tablets that act very much like the aforementioned taking devices.

What are your experiences with communication and behaviors? Please tell your stories in the comments section below.

Remember, parents … breathe. You got this!

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • pamela gray

    February 8th, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    To reach an autistic child, there have to be multiple methods of trial and error. With these children it is truly all about if at first you don’t succeed. then you have to try and try again. Teachers and parents and therapists have to try anything, any way, available to them in order to make the most difference to autistic children. There is just as much in there as there is with any higher functioning children! It is just as important to reach them and teach them as it is the rest of us. Please don’t give up just because it isn’t quite as easy to see that spark. I promise you that it is there, it simply takes a little more work to find it sometimes.

  • scott

    February 9th, 2013 at 11:35 PM

    never easy to teach communication to someone who is not used to it.
    not being able to communicate can not just frustrate someone but could exacerbate their existing disorder.if we can help people overcome that their quality of life is bound to improve not just their condition.

  • shaun

    February 10th, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    behavior can suffer a lot when there isn’t sufficient communication.both interpersonal and intrapersonal.and if a disability is preventing adequate communication it can fuel the frustration that person important to find ways to enable such people to put across their thoughts through a variety of media.

  • Perrin

    February 12th, 2013 at 10:56 AM

    This is such an important concept that I had not thought of, but when you take away one’s ability to communicate you have muted them and somehow shown them that what they may have to offer this world is not important. But then to somehow give them a voice, give them a way to communicate and express what could be going on deep inside, or even those little things that they need to say, could make all the difference in the world. Bravo to those who have been advocates for finding these children a way to communicate with the people in their lives who are the most important to them!

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