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10 Autism Tips: Vocabulary to Increase Communication

Estimate: 1 in 54 children in the United States have Autism.

Do “our kids” on the Autism spectrum have vocabulary problems? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It depends on how you define it.

I found 3 definitions on Dictionary.com.

  • The body of words used in a particular language.
  • Words used on a particular occasion.
  • The body of words known to a particular person.

Notice…I taught English for 2 years. I lower myself to admit that I don’t know the modern definition of “vocabulary.” Everything is changing. I discovered these too.

  • Listening vocabulary: Words you need to know and understand what we hear.
  • Reading vocabulary: Words we need to understand what we read.
  • Speaking vocabulary: Words we need to know to understand when we speak.
  • Writing vocabulary: Words we use in writing.

Back to Autism and vocabulary. There are challenges, especially when I met 10 preschoolers with Autism…All at once! Even better, 2 were nonverbal. That I will never forget.

Traveling back on the WayBack Machine…

Teacher…ESY teacher. What does that mean? This time I ask teaching assistants. “ESY? What’s that all about?”

Sandra stares at me. “ESY means Extended School Year.” I look like deer in headlights. “That means that the students are so severe that they need support over the summer.”

I hate the word severe. Another word that is meaningless. Special education acronyms drive me crazy. Anyway, I give up. “Thank you.”

Autism, Autistic, ASD, Asperger’s Syndrome. What do they mean? Exactly. I look all over the internet and see so many definitions that I give up. My best choice is Autism (ASD). What do we see?

  • Difficulties social interaction (social skills).
  • Struggle with sensory processing (heightened sensitivity to light, sound, touch or other senses).
  • Unstable communication (participate in conversation).
  • Executive functioning (flexible thinking – thinking in new ways).
  • Motor planning (clumsy and uncoordinated).
  • Passionate, narrow interests (“special interest” around a certain topic).
  • Repetitive behaviors and movement (arm flapping, rocking repeat sounds).
  • A need for routine and consistency (change often results in anxiety and discomfort).

Autism is medically described as a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how kids process information. Autism is lifelong. You can’t grow out of it. To make it more challenging, It often occurs with other conditions like ADHD and learning disabilities.

Current day…

A friend gave  me a great quote, “If you meet a child with Autism, you’ve met one child with Autism.” True. I meet with my teens and adults the same way. No Parents. 

Here goes the dangerous part. “Hi. My name is Edie. What’s your name?”


Yea! A conversation is on its way. Unfortunately speaking vocabulary is an issue. It’s common with teens on the spectrum. Will he understand me? I better run down my checklist.

  • Uses made-up words in conversation. Encourage them to describe “jargon” through gestures.
  • Has difficulty naming words. Give options/choice contrast.
  • Has difficulty telling stories, conversations, and facts. Use “sequence” words (first, then, finally).
  • Make up sentences that don’t make sense. Repeat what he said for comprehension.
  • Difficulty being understood by people they don’t know well. Ask others for support.

School Solutions

Teens with Autism benefit from caring and trained teachers. Calmness and understanding do as well. Yes/no questions can be easier. However, vocabulary development is built through open-ended questions. Keep it short. Repeat too.

Choice-making can benefit both the teacher and student. “Do you want A or B? Be careful. Make sure that the student understands what A and B are.

Be cool. Narrate what they are doing. Then switch it up. Then do what they want to do.

Writing Solutions

  • Read everyday. Make sure they choose the book (book, comic book, magazine, blog).
  • Learn new words every day. Use them in context (not memorized).
  • Use new words immediately. Ensure comprehension.
  • Make your own vocabulary test. Try Quizlet.
  • Play games. Explain what’s going on.

Reading Solutions

  • Teach definitions. Make sure the definition makes sense.
  • Use powerful words. Work on words they’ll see in textbooks.
  • Erect a Word Wall. Ensure retention.
  • Engage the class. Team games work.
  • Avoid arguments. Let them choose their own words.

At-home Activities

Being at home allows “our kids” to have a place of safety. It’s a great place to build vocabulary. Just remember, it should be fun.

Cooking is a great tool for building vocabulary. Read the directions. Count the ingredients. Double the recipe. Discuss how and why to use the oven. Make sure you know the answers.

No one would give up playtime. Get him to describe the directions. Set the rules. Talk in character-friend conversation.

Having fun is a great way to improve vocabulary. Functional Communication Training (FCT) is developed for students with Autism. Best of all, it’s a natural process.

  • How to make requests.
  • How to make complex language.
  • Express their wants and needs.
  • Make a more effective communication all-arounds.

Using the 4 types of vocabulary are key successful communication. This is especially true for people with Autism. Reading, listening, writing, and speaking are important for school, work, and everyday life. Using strategies, they can learn more every moment.

Engage in conversation using positive language. Use labels and icons to associate words and objects. Read aloud, their choice. Most of all, have fun.

Question: What is your favorite pleasure-reading book?


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