Autism and an Alternative Communication System

When a child is diagnosed as being on the autism sector, parents can worry about speech development being affected. Some children may remain without language abilities throughout the whole of their lives, while others communicate in other ways, such as sign language, visual clues or an alternative communication system.  Alternative methods of communication are used to assist children with communication skills through the use of visual language systems – and they can sometimes be referred to as assistive technology as well.

Information, research and support has been slow in the world of autism up until now, and this is certainly the case when it comes to communication. There have been many methods of alternative communication systems and augmentative communication apps available in the past for people whose communication skills were affected by disability, but they have only recently started to be adapted for autism.

Augmentative and assistive apps can help autistic children to learn the basics of communication before they even begin to speak. It can also help parents as well as they can bond better with their child by communicating with them through assistive technology. There should be no worry in the parent’s minds that they are giving up on their child’s verbal skills by using an alternative communication system. Augmentative communication apps can actually help to form the foundation of your child’s communication skills that will allow them to verbally communicate at a later point.



Why Alternative Communication Systems Work

When you look at the typical development of a child, you usually see that communication happens in a certain order:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

However, children who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum can have problems with developing in a certain sequence – but they will also have different strengths and weaknesses. They usually demonstrate stronger visual processing skills than other children, so focussing on reading, writing and using a keyboard may be more productive than focussing on verbal skills to begin with.


Where to Start with Alternative Communication Systems

If you are thinking of using alternative communication systems with your child, then you need to do a little bit of assessment first – by looking at:

  • The child’s current and future communication needs
  • The current communication your child uses
  • Different types of communication systems out there


Different Types of Augmentative and Alternative Communication Systems

If your child cannot communicate verbally, then they may choose to use an alternative form of communicating or augment their existing abilities with other strategies. Let’s take a closer look at some of the available systems out there:


PECS (Picture Exchange Communication Systems)

This form of alternative communication is usually used with autistic children who are non-verbal. PECS can be used in several ways to aid communication but the most common way is through the use of a series of pictures which the child can point at or hand to their caregiver. The pictures can be hand drawn, clip art or a photo of certain items and/or feelings. When the child wants to communicate something to their caregiver, friend, or parent they can use the picture to symbolise what they want. The person they have handed the picture to will then reinforce their choice by handing them the item that they want. Over time, the pictures can be replaced with words and then sentences can be built.

Although the use of PECS sounds simple, the actual introduction of it can take many months, and typically moves through six stages:

  • Teaching the child to request an activity or object
  • Transfer this skill to requesting other objects and activities where people are involved
  • Teaching the child to discriminate by asking ‘what would you like to do?’
  • Encouraging the use of sentences using the symbols for ‘I want’ and ‘car’ for example
  • Extending the sentences by adding descriptive words such as ‘blue’ or ‘big’
  • Encouraging the child to comment on activities such as ‘I can smell my dinner cooking’

PECS then works best if you start with a basic request, and then work your way up to a conversation, while expanding the child’s verbal skills.


ILB – Interactive Language Boards

ILBs are based on the premise that the child already has some literacy skills but is nonverbal at the moment. ILBs can be made with different purposes in mind, and food is always a good place to start as it is a good reinforcement for learning new skills. The relevant words for the activity are chosen, such as ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ in this case, and then other words are added that allow the child to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and to make a comment.

Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives are chosen for the way they will drive the activity as well as words that describe the actual objects needed for the activity, and options for the child to comment, accept and refuse.

If the board is produced to be used with food then it needs to be laminated, so that it is protected from spillages. As a parent you can point to relevant words as you are enjoying the meal together. Any attempt by the child to use the board to communicate should be encouraged, and you can also guide the child to point to the right word as well.



Gestures are a common form of communication that is often overlooked but they are universally understood by anyone. Gestures can include things such as shrugging the shoulders, or nodding the head.


Manual Sign Language

This has long been an effective form of communication for many children due to the visual nature of the process which can back up visual communication. Signing allows children on the autism spectrum to develop their language skills, but some can struggle with the fine motor control or actually understanding what the signs mean.

As you can see there are lots of options out there for alternative communication systems for your child so if you have discovered that my child has autism then do not worry, there are plenty of support systems available for you to help you to encourage your child to communicate.