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Early Intervention Strategies to Promote Communication Behaviors

In early intervention, key areas of focus should include communication and social engagement. How do we begin to build these behaviors in young children with autism? It is important to use a systematic approach. In addition, it’s ok to start simple, and recognize that baby steps (e.g., a few more seconds of engagement with the child in each activity, any small sign of interest from the child – a glance towards you or the activity, a reach, a faint smile) are still progress!

Below are a few basic guidelines when targeting communication behaviors within play and sensory-based routines:

  • Start with the child’s interests – what does s/he do in his free time, what materials does he use, how does he use them? If it’s a train set, start there. If it’s mulch or string, start there. If it’s jumping and spinning, start there. We cannot impose upon children what we think they should be playing with, if that is not where their current interests and skills lie. In order to learn the power of communication, the child must be motivated to engage and to communicate something.
  • Arrange the environment to control access to any of these preferred toys or materials so that the child must communicate with you (in some way – not necessarily through words) that he wants the item. Otherwise, if he can freely access the things he wants, what does he need you for?
  • If possible, break up the item into parts, to allow more opportunities to target a nonverbal behavioral request (e.g., fleeting glance, looking, reaching, or pointing). For example, if the child is motivated to sift through LEGOs, don’t give him all of the pieces at once. Give a piece or two and then pause and look in anticipation. Immediately reinforce any gesture, look, or action that might mean “I want more” by giving the child more of the item.
  • Once the activity has started, imitate the child’s actions to capture his/her attention. Look for any sign of shared affect and engagement, even if it is fleeting.
  • Playfully add one action to the routine that might interest the child (e.g., swirling the string; fingers moving to tickle the child; dropping the figurine into the water-splash!; singing as the child jumps on the trampoline). Then after a moment or two, pause, wait, and look in anticipation to see whether the child expresses any motivation for you to continue or repeat the action. Reinforce any nonverbal communication behavior (e.g., a fleeting glance, a look, a reach, a point) by immediately continuing the action with lots of enthusiasm. This is how we begin to shape communication behaviors in these motivating contexts.


Want to learn more about these and other best practices in early intervention?

Free workshop: Early Intervention Strategies for Parents and Professionals

Saturday, June 3, from 8:30 a.m. to 12 noon

Comfort Inn Suites at Northlake, 7315 Smith Corners Blvd., Charlotte

Register now

We thank Speedway Children’s Charities for its support of this training.


Louise Southern, M.Ed., BCBA, Associate Clinical Director, can be reached at lsouthern@autismsociety-nc.org or 919-743-0204.

ASNC’s Clinical Services Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to parents and professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and enhancing social understanding in individuals with autism.


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