Communication, Language and the Child with Special Needs

Most children grab our attention with spoken words, eye contact or gestures and can communicate a want or need with relative ease. For the child with special needs this can be a minefield. They may have genuine trouble indicating their interests, feelings and thoughts.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that communicative intent is absent. Parents will be acutely aware of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) ways their child attempts to communicate. It is important to remember that the spoken word is only one aspect of interpersonal communication. Here are some tips for encouraging expressive and receptive communication
Get their attention
–          Make sure you are at your child’s eye level before giving an instruction or initiating a conversation
–          Use physical gestures sparingly and make them deliberately and slowly
Expand the sentence
–          If your child says a one or two word sentence such as “drink”, model the full sentence back e.g. “I want a drink”.
Choice Boards
–          A child with special needs can use a choice board (can be just a simple strip of paper with pictures, symbols or words) to communicate needs and wants e.g. a preferred food or activity
–          For those with limited language, these can be a useful way of practicing expressive language
Visual Schedules
–          I touched on these briefly in the article entitled “Tips for calm and happy kids”. A visual schedule is a visual representation of what will happen during the day/week/month. For anxious children, this can be hugely reassuring.
–          For visual learners, a visual schedule offers a chance to participate successfully at home or school and increase independence.
–          To a child with autism who thinks in very literal terms, idioms are highly confusing and even distressing. Try to limit them until your child is old enough to be taught the actual meanings. Holding one’s horse, for example, can prove somewhat problematic without context! Carefully consider the use of ‘everyday’ language and sayings and you’ll soon become aware of how frequently we all adopt sayings like this out of habit!
An environment rich in language
–          “What did you do today?” can be a daunting question for children with limited language. At the end of the day, perhaps your child could indicate with pictures what they did at school/child care/Nana’s house etc. Help them put it into a sentence.
–          Try manipulating the home environment to encourage communication e.g. your child has to ask someone to pass the bread at the table.
Jiselle Simpson is Director of Chilled Kids, an educational support service specialising in creating programs for children with additional learning or behavioural needs.  For more information on how Chilled Kids can help your child visit our website at, phone 0408 716 350 or email

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