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Part 1 of 4: Encouraging Emerging Language and Receptive Vocabulary

Angela Nelson, J.D., Ed.M. By Angela Nelson, J.D., Ed.M. | 4/18/14 2:14 PM | About Autism | 6 Comments

Emerging Language and Building Vocabulary

Language development varies from child to child, and there are wide ranges of expected “normal” language development in young children. If you have specific concerns about the pace of your child’s language development, you should definitely discuss this with your health care professional. However, for reference sake, by the age of two a child is expected to be able to:

  • Follow simple commands or instructions
  • Point to an object or picture when it is named for him or her
  • Recognize names of familiar objects, body parts and familiar faces
  • Repeat words spoken by others
  • Use simple phrases and 2 – 4 word sentences by 18 – 24 months

As we all know, there is no “typical” child with autism. Children on the autism spectrum may meet some of these objectives, all of these objectives, or none of these objectives. The goal is to identify your child’s specific language deficits (the areas you see them falling behind) and take steps to help them catch up.

The first stages of language development, as described above, involve listening to words, imitating words, and building a basic vocabulary. In your child’s education program you may have heard professionals use terms like Receptive Language, Echolalia, Modeling, Matching, or Expressive Language. Don’t let these terms of art intimidate you. Really, they still just mean… listening to words, imitating words, and building a basic vocabulary.

Encouraging Emerging Language Skills

A most basic step in typical language development is imitation. Many parents are surprised to learn that the parent imitating the child is almost as important as the child imitating the parent! When a 12 month old child looks at his or her mother and says “mamamama,” the mother almost instinctively replies back, “that’s right ‘mama.’” This feedback reinforces the child’s vocalization and encourages them to keep on chatting. Although children with autism may have delayed onset of this type of behavior, or may have some setbacks along the way, it is important to remember to continue to imitate vocalizations with your child to encourage verbal behavior.

Imitation will also provide the first steps in the formation of words for your child. This time I am referring to your child imitating you! While you are hoping to hear your child imitating full words, remember, this starts with imitating vowels, consonants and syllables. If you say “aaaaa” and your child responds back with “aaaaa,” this is a cause for celebration. You are one step closer to your child saying “apple” than you were before they could (or would) imitate your vocalization. Eventually, modeling words will become the way you build your child’s expressive vocabulary!

Matching Objects and Pictures as a Precursor to Language

Developmental Psychologist Jean Piaget observed that a child first becomes aware of a concept and then acquires the words to convey that concept. Think about this for a moment: a child has to know that an apple is a distinct and separate item before they know they should give it a name. They have to realize that the apple is different than, say, the cup. This is where matching comes in.

identical-apple-matching-cards
Language Builder Picture Card Series: Identical Matching Sample

To help teach this concept using pictures of objects, place two pictures on the table in front of your child, one picture of an apple, and the other of a cup (or some non-apple picture). Hand your child an identical picture of an apple. Ask your child to “match” the apples, or to “put with same.”

When your child can consistently match the two cards, regardless of the position of the cards, they likely understand that the apple is a distinct object. Now we are one step closer to giving that object a name!

Building Receptive Vocabulary

Receptive language refers to the thought process involved in hearing, processing and comprehending spoken language. When we mentioned above that a two year old child should be able to follow simple commands, point to objects when they are named, and recognize names of familiar objects; these objectives were examples of receptive language skills.

There are a number of ways to help build your child’s receptive vocabulary. Using photo cards is one basic and concrete vocabulary building tool that you can do at home. Place pictures of common objects on the table in front of your child. Ask your child to “touch the cookies” or “give me the hat.” When your child can follow the command and consistently select the requested picture, you have added a new word to their receptive vocabulary.

It is likely that your child will need help selecting the correct card… especially the first few times you try this task. Here is a trick to help make picking the right word easier. Start with just one card on the table and increase the number of pictures slowly. For example, if you are trying to teach the word cookies:

  1. Start with just the picture of the cookies on the table.
  2. After your child has learned to touch the cookies picture on request, add a blank card to the table. Ask your child to touch the cookies picture several more times, rotating the position of the two cards each time.
  3. Then, add a second picture to the table, and a third, and a fourth.
  4. Once your child can select the cookies picture each time, introduce new words using the same method!

language-builder-picture-cards-progression-from-one-card-to-multipleLanguage Builder Picture Cards: Receptive Labeling can progress from one card to multiple cards

The Language Builder by Stages app features an Identical Matching activity designed to encourage emerging language.  See it in action by clicking the button below.

View Identical Matching Activity on Language Builder App

Read other articles in our Autism and Language series:

Part 2: Building Vocabulary

Part 3: From Basic Vocabulary to Building Sentences

Part 4: Labeling and Requesting

Angela Nelson, J.D., Ed.M. Angela Nelson received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas, and her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a focus on technology innovation and education. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism, special needs and early childhood curriculum products since 1997. In addition to her duties at Stages, Angela writes for multiple industry publications and is on the board of the Education Market Association. In her spare time, Angela makes a mean ginger scallion sauce, and attempts to adjust to non-LA weather.

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