By Sarah Murphy, MS, CCC-SLP

    As the number of children diagnosed with autism and related disorders increases, so does the need for alternative methods of communication. Advances in technology have made it possible for people who are non-verbal to have a voice that can be accessed quickly and efficiently and which allows them to interact and communicate with the world around them. However, this type of communication can be difficult to navigate for caregivers and at times it is less intuitive to us then it is to the children or adults who use it. When using a device at home there are two main concepts that caregivers can focus on to keep it simple and help grow language. The first is modeling words on the device to help teach that form of communication and the second is using core language, which will give the most value to people who have limited language.


    How can we expect our children to learn how to use a device if we cannot use it to model language for them? Children who are verbal learn by listening to their parents speak and can then eventually produce the same output (verbal speech). So, for non-verbal students, we have to think about providing them the input (modeling words and phrases on the device) in order for them to give us that output on the device. The input must match the output; modeling on a child’s device will give them tools to communicate independently.

    • Make the device available to your child as often as possible.
    • Allow time for your child to “explore” the device. This is similar to babies babbling when they begin to learn language. They may be saying nonsense now, but it will help them become more proficient.
    • Even if you understand what your child means by pointing or vocalizing, show that you expect him to use the device so that he will be understood by other communication partners outside of the home.
    • Model words and phrases that are commonly used at home. This can be done surrounding routines such as “turn on TV,” “get in bath,” “go outside,” etc.
    • Try to model a word at least four times before you expect the child to use it himself.
    • Wait 10-20 seconds (with an expectant look) before helping him with familiar words. If the child can’t find the word on his own this is a great opportunity to model!
    • Respond to errors. As a caregiver you know when your child says “water” but he really wants juice. When he makes an error like this, give him the water so that he understands the meaning of each word he says, even if it’s an accident.
    • Presume competence. Having confidence that our children/students can and will communicate using a device will make a big difference!

    Core language

    Core vocabulary is a small set of simple words that are used frequently and across settings. Studies of toddlers’ spontaneous language use shows that they use a set of about 30-50 words, which makes up approximately 80% of what they say. This is similar for adults, but with a larger set of words. Fringe words make up the other 20% and these are mostly nouns. These fringe words are much easier to picture on a device (e.g., chair, cookie, ball), so it is easy to focus on them with non-verbal children, BUT they are much more limiting. For example if we teach a child the word “cookie”, which is a fringe word, the child will really only be able to get a cookie. However, if we instead teach the word “give” with a finger point, he can request anything in his sight. When we target core words, one simple word can create the opportunity for so much language!

    Here are some examples of core words to use with your child:

    • Open (open door, open microwave, open my drink, open the box)
    • Go (go in, go out, go away, let’s go home, go fast/slow, don’t go)
    • Stop (stop that, stop music, stop playing)
    • Turn (my turnturn up/down music, turn on/off TV, take turnsturn around)
    • Want (want eat, want drink, want more, want toy, don’t want)
    • Finished/all done
    • That (stop that, want that, do that, say that, give me that)
    • Play (play outside, play ball, play the game, play with me, play movie)
    • Look (look at me, look at this, can I look)
    • Phrases combining these words: open that, go play, turn finished, want go, go in that, stop that, look your turn, I want finished.

    Nouns are still important to teach as they will help these phrases become more specific. Since approximately 80% of what we say is core words it can be helpful to think of teaching language in a four to one ratio. For every one fringe word you teach (e.g., “cookie”) teach four core words to go with it. For example “eat cookie,” “no cookie,” “want cookie,” “different cookie.” This will give children control of their environment and motivate them to continue to expand their language skills!

    Parents and caregivers, I hope you can use these tips to have fun learning language with your child. Have faith in your own judgment, experiment, learn from your child, repeat the things that work, and improve upon the things that don’t work. And remember to forgive yourself for mistakes, as they are only lessons for improvement.