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    Teacher Tips: Using Receptive Labeling to Teach Children with Autism Language Skills

    Topics: Teaching with Pictures, Autism and Language, Autism Technology, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, ARIS Autism Curriculum, Infant/Toddler (0-3), Elementary (4-12), Articles

    This resource was created as a supplement for the Language Builder: Academic Readiness Intervention System (ARIS) complete early autism curriculum, Lesson #23, Receptive Learning in Books. Download a free copy of the lesson and learn more about the ARIS curriculum.

    Beginning at a young age, many children with autism can find it difficult to relate to and communicate with other people, and thus may have significant difficulty in expressive and receptive language (Simpson, Keen, & Lamb, 2015). Difficulties in language development can impact later functional outcomes, such as maintaining successful relationships and communicating wants and needs effectively. For students with autism, receptive language development is extremely important, as support in this area allows them to understand other’s requests and the surrounding environment. Thus, early intervention to support language development in young children with autism is necessary.

    As teachers, there are many fun and engaging activities that that you can do to support children’s receptive language development while keeping their attention and developing the whole child! Check out the four ideas below:

    1. Utilize games

    The Language Builder: Academic Readiness Intervention System (ARIS) combines the trusted Language Builder Picture Card sets with 3D manipulatives, detailed lesson plans, black-line masters for various activity sheets, a system for record keeping, and custom home communication forms for the most complete early autism education curriculum available. Within these lessons are a wealth of resources and teacher supports to facilitate learning for children with autism. The lessons on receptive labeling offer various games and activities that teachers can try with their students that are engaging and support the whole child.

    For example, the following games, many of which will likely feel familiar, are engaging games to play that not only foster a sense of competition, but also promote social development and interaction and can be adapted to facilitate student’s receptive language skills through receptive labeling.

    Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

    An age-old game, Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes is a great way for children with autism to practice their receptive labeling skills. Once the child has mastered the body parts head, shoulders, knees, toes, eyes, ears, mouth, and nose, you can introduce these body parts in this well-known children’s song. Doing so will add a fun and engaging spin on the child’s therapy and teach a socially appropriate circle-time song they can do with their peers. You can also make up new words to the song to teach the child other body parts and increase engagement: Neck, elbows, hips, and ankles, for example.


    stages-bingo-gamesAnother classic game, Bingo is essentially a receptive labeling activity in disguise! As soon as the child can identify a few basic 2D Noun Pictures, you can turn the activity into a Bingo game by placing the known noun images on a table in a grid pattern. Using a small item to serve as a bingo marker, the student covers the picture that matches the word you call out. You can use Stages bingo games that use the Language Builder images to help your student add to their vocabulary.

    Scavenger Hunt

    A scavenger hunt can be a great receptive labeling activity, especially for colors. Collect a deck of various colors and give the first color to a student. Then, ask the student to find something in the room that is the same color. Once the student can find the specified color with the color card in their hands, ask them to find something that is a specific color without showing them the color card first!


    artificial-intelligenceThis game is a modified version of the memory game that teaches your student different careers. Using the occupation picture cards from the Language Builder: Occupation Cards, or simply cutting out real life images from magazines of people engaging in different careers you can help your child learn common occupations and recognize people such as bus drivers and police officers . Begin by placing multiple pairs of occupation cards on the table face up in a random arrangement, and then ask the student to find the matched pairs. In order to support the student in working on their receptive labeling skills, ask the child to specifically find a certain occupation, like “firefighters.” You can also narrate for the students as they search for the cards, reinforcing them when they find one occupation and encouraging them to find the matching card.

    I Spy

    With just a slight twist, the classic I Spy game can become a receptive labeling activity. In this game, you can provide the student with a word that is present in the environment. For example, you can say, “I spy…something Red.” The student should respond by going to the object or pointing at it. Additionally, this I Spy game is one that is great to do with other peers to increase social interaction. In this way, the student is learning receptive labels while engaging in social skills and play activity with others.

    Musical Chairs

    Want to get your students up and moving? Try musical chairs! This classic can also become a receptive labeling activity. For example, you can practice receptively labeling verbs with your students through musical chairs by placing one verb card from the Language Builder Verbs and Action Words Set on the seat of each chair. Then, after starting upbeat, kid-friendly music, students will begin walking around the circle of chairs. Once the music stops, you can call out one verb. The student should run to the chair with the correct verb card. To increase rigor and student engagement, have the student act out or mime the verb!

    1. Incorporate the Senses

    One way to facilitate receptive language development for students with autism is by utilizing sensory play. Once the student can identify a few basic 3D items, you can add a fun twist and a great sensory activity by having the student receptively identify 3D objects that are hidden in a sensory medium like sand, water, foam peanuts, or other sensory material. This will not only reinforce 3D object identification, but also create a valuable sensory experience for students with autism.

    1. Utilize Storybooks

    As students with autism are practicing receptively labeling colors, you can utilize storybooks to help the student generalize their primary colors. For example, storybooks such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? can provide a fun and natural way to help students identify their colors. Additionally, this is a great opportunity to involve other classmates to facilitate not only student’s receptive language development, but also their social development.

    1. Don’t Be Afraid of Technology!

    Looking for ways to engage your students through technology? Especially at a time when many students are participating in remote learning due to the coronavirus, technological tools to support students is necessary. One great resource is the Language Builder from STAGES App, available to download on various smart devices. This app is based on the Language Builder Picture Noun Cards, Sets 1 & 2, which are used to teach basic language skills to children with autism. If you would like to try before you buy, you can download the free version!

    These tips are sure to facilitate the receptive language development for students with autism. Happy teaching!


    Simpson, Kate & Keen, Deb & Lamb, Janeen. (2015). Teaching receptive labelling to children with autism: A comparative study using infant-directed song and infant-directed speech. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability.

    This resource was created as a supplement for the Language Builder: Academic Readiness Intervention System (ARIS) complete early autism curriculum, Lesson #23, Receptive Learning in Books. Download a free copy of the lesson and learn more about the ARIS curriculum.


    Madeline Burroughs

    Written by Madeline Burroughs

    Madeline Burroughs is a Specially Designed Instructional Coach at two high schools in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, GA. In this role, she works to coach special education teachers in providing systematic, specially designed instruction that effectively targets students’ strengths and needs. Madeline received her Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education in May 2019, and hopes to continue to serve as an advocate for all students with disabilities throughout her career.