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7 Techniques to Respond to Your Child with Autism for Meaningful Conversation

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Your child with autism has just initiated something verbal (with words) and/or nonverbal (body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.). These initiations are totally precious because they are rare and generated by your child after much effort orchestrating multiple requirements for communication. So valuable are your child’s initiations, they deserve productive adult responses as models to further grow their language skills and continue the conversation. These techniques can help!

1. Acknowledge: Regardless of how incorrect her initiated sentences might be, whenever naturally appropriate, acknowledge verbally whatever she has said:

“Yes.” “Yeah.” “Uh-huh.” “Oh!” “Mhm.” “Ah!” “I see.” “I understand.”

Along with your verbal input, make your nonverbal body language match your words like nodding ‘yes’, tone of voice, and facial expressions.

2. Emphasize: Use interjections to add emphasis and animation to your acknowledgment when appropriate:

“Wow!” “Uh-oh!” “Oh, no!” “Hmm…” “Ohhh!” “Whoops!” “Ugh!” Children learn by watching and listening to the various models of others, especially when you incorporate what your child has just said. Your child will naturally imitate your words if he or she chooses. Respond with short sentences or phrases presented slowly in an audible, clear voice.

After acknowledging and emphasizing, model through incorporation of these three strategies:

3. Expand: Restate whatever your child says using proper grammar to form a complete sentence."

Child: “Car go.”

Adult: “Yes, the car is going.”


Child: “Her hungry?”

Adult: “Hmm…is she hungry?”

4. Extend: After applying the expansion technique above, add new information.

Child: "Car go.”

Adult: "Yes, the car is going. It’s a fast car!"

Child: "Baby cry."

Adult: "Aw, yeah…the baby is crying. He's hungry." 5. Request imitation: If your child does not choose to imitate your words on his own, at times you may request his imitation. Since imitation cannot always be demanded or expected or performed flawlessly by your child, discretion should be used. Insert pauses in order to make it easier for your child to repeat:

Child: “Mommy, truck going!” Adult: “Oh my goodness, yes! That truck is going too fast! Johnny, say, ‘Mommy,’ [pause for your child to repeat] ‘that truck’ [pause] ‘is going’ [pause] ‘too fast!’”

(Immediately following, try to have your child imitate the whole sentence without pausing.)


Child: “Milk.” Adult: “Ok…Sarah, say, ‘Can I have milk, Mom?’” or “Yes…Sarah, say, ‘Mom, I want milk.’” In situations where your child initiates something vague or inadequate, you can respond to what you think his intention was with these two strategies:

6. Paraphrase: To achieve greater clarity using different words, paraphrasing provides rich input for your child to hear and imprint into his repertoire.

Child: “Milk.” Adult: “Oh! You want milk. Ok, here’s a glass of milk.”


Child: “My shoes?” Adult: “Hmm…you are looking for your shoes. Where are your shoes? Let’s try to find your shoes.” 7. Evoke clarification: When your child initiates a vague or inadequate request or demand, respond with something factual. This might influence your child to consider using other words to clarify:

Child (as a request for milk): “Milk?” Adult: “Yes, that is milk.” Or “M-hmm. The milk is white.” Desired clarification from your child: “May I have milk?”


Child (as a demand to turn the TV back on): “TV on!” Adult: “No, the TV is not on. I turned the TV off.” Desired clarification from your child: “Turn the TV on.”

If your child does not spontaneously produce other words to clarify, you can provide the correct model for imitation (e.g., “Sarah, say, ‘Mom, I want milk.’”), or paraphrase with a request for imitation (e.g., “You want me to turn the TV back on. Sarah, say, ‘Mom, please turn the TV back on.’”).

With these seven strategies, your child’s priceless initiations can be further developed and reinforced to create more natural, meaningful communication. Feel free to Email me using the form below to share your experiences and to ask questions. -KKS

Are you eager to help your child communicate better but not sure where to begin?

Hi! I'm Karen Kabaki-Sisto, an autism communication expert for over 20 years.

If your child with autism talks, he or she likely has difficulties understanding and expressing words, gestures, and feelings. I created this user-friendly tool to turn your observations into real insights about:







Upon completion, you'll instantly receive a detailed report of your child's current communication strengths and weaknesses. Over time, you can make new assessments (as often as you'd like) to monitor her or his progress.


Easy-to-follow and so necessary! 

What you will learn...

By submitting your E-mail, you'll receive a link to my FREE Communication Assessment Tool and ideas for overcoming communication challenges your verbal child with autism may be experiencing. I'll also send my personal E-mail address to connect with me directly about your concerns!  ~Karen :)

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