Positive Affirmations Increase Language Development in Autistic Toddlers

Children with autism or other conditions that fall within the autism spectrum (ASD) usually have impaired verbal skills. They understand and assign fewer words to items and actions than their non-ASD peers and, even in early childhood, have a significantly smaller vocabulary. Many toddlers with ASD utter few words at all, making communication difficult between children and parents, teachers, and others. Numerous approaches have been designed to improve verbal skills in autistic children, including parental attentiveness. Since parents interact most with their children, it would make sense that a large part of what a child learns about language and verbal actions is learned from parents. Therefore, understanding what parents can do to help their ASD children learn and produce more words could improve communication and increase learning in other areas.

Eileen Haebig of the University of Wisconsin recently conducted a study in which she examined several types of parental communication to see which method had the biggest impact on vocabulary expansion in a group of ASD preschoolers. The children and parents were recorded during a play session in which the parent provided verbal responses, visual responses, and verbal explanations to the child. One year later, Haebig evaluated the children to see if their vocabulary had increased. She found that the parents who verbally communicated with their children using “follow-in” comments had children with the biggest verbal gains. Follow-ins are comments that are made to the children describing and acknowledging what the child is focusing on. Parents who communicated with their children about the fact that the child was watching the parent do something did not have the same positive impact.

Haebig believes that when children are focused on an action or object, and parents comment or describe that focus with words, it provides the children a map for assigning meaning to words. However, when parents merely acknowledge that a child is focused on their parents’ actions, rather than being physically engaged in those same actions, the verbal descriptions did not have the same effect on the children. In fact, the follow-in comments were the only methods of communication that increased vocabulary in the children in this sample. Haebig concluded by adding, “Children with ASD who have minimal linguistic skills may benefit from parent language input that follows into the child’s focus of attention.”

Haebig, Eileen, Andrea McDuffie, and Susan Ellis Weismer. (2013). The contribution of two categories of parent verbal responsiveness to later language for toddlers and preschoolers on the autism spectrum. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 22.1: 57-70. Print.

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  • adair


    March 16th, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    This is such awesome news to share with parents of autistic children who for so long have felt ignored and have had to develop their own ways to establish communication rituals with their children. I think that giving them feedback like this shows the entire community who is concerned with autism that there is hope out there and there are ways to reach your children and teach them even on those days when you feel like little progress is being made. There is usually a bright and inquisitive child in there, and we have to find every way that we know how to teach them just the way that you would any other child. Their lives are important, they are valuable, and giving parents something to work with that is as positive as this is going to make so much of a difference in a good way for so many families.

  • Hank


    March 18th, 2013 at 3:45 AM

    Most children respond well with anything positive rom their parents or those that they deem to be in a position of power. I would only assume that autistic children would respond to this positivity in the same way.

  • miranda


    March 18th, 2013 at 5:10 AM

    while best practices are ways good I think individual focused efforts lead o better outcomes. every child has his own way of learning and although a disorder may hamper learning there are innovative ways to make things click. proactive new from parents can help in identifying and putting into practices those very ideas.

  • Joe Faris

    Joe Faris

    March 18th, 2013 at 3:59 PM

    I sincerely hope that more programs are created that can teach parents how to interact with these children with autism so that they can impart to them so much more than they might have received in the past. I have an autistic nephew and I have watched as my sister and brother in law have tried everything to reach their child, sometimes with great success and sometimes not. But they never stop trying and I hope that research in this area stays as persistent as the parents of these children are.

  • June


    March 19th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    Is it really true that most who fall within the autism spectrum have impaired verbal skills, because what about those with Asperger’s? They fall within that spectrum, right? And there are many of thiose who have that who do not struggle with that at all.

  • M.B


    March 20th, 2013 at 1:06 PM

    Never thought about this.the way we talk to toddlers can help them improve their vocabulary and maybe even concentration skills. also what this does is in addition to helping develop the vocabulary of autistic kids it can change the entire equation of relationships. any relationship needs a certain level of communication and when one is developing those skills it means the relationships will turn out better too. this is something that can then go on to influence the child on a lifetime basis. now that is how important this really is.

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