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5 Ways to Teach Sentences to Children with Autism  

teaching languages

Written by: Amber Valentino

At Trumpet Behavioral Health, we take pride in the level of expertise our Applied Behavior Analysts bring to the table. In addition to creating and executing custom treatment plans for individuals with autism, our experts take an active role in educating parents and contributing to our blog. This blog was written by Amber Valentino, Trumpet’s Chief Clinical Officer.  

Effective ABA therapy can establish a one-word requesting repertoire in children with autism in a relatively short period of time. Establishing these one-word requests for basic needs and wants (e.g., a book, a drink, a favorite cartoon) can have lasting effects on your child’s ability to communicate with the world around them.

This exciting language milestone can sometimes leave parents wondering: 

….now… what about sentences? When can my kid go from saying one word to saying multiple words at once?

How To Expand Language Skills For Children With Autism

Using sentences is indeed an important skill to develop and doing so at the right time and in the right way is critical to maintaining your child’s language progress. Here are some tips for expanding your child with autism’s language from one-word requests to multiple-word requests.

#1: Establish a large one-word repertoire first.

We often recommend upward of 100 one-word requests before targeting sentences. Why? For a few reasons. First, if we start to push sentences earlier, say with only a handful of one-word requests we’ll start to get awkward sentences (think: “mom go up, I want please”) because many children simply learn that attaching a bunch of words atop the primary request will get reinforced (and it often does). Second, many kids will begin to form sentences independently after a larger repertoire has developed. This independent sentence generation is often much more natural than anything we’d teach, so we want to capitalize on natural language progression and teach from there if we can. So, if you’re super eager and ready to teach sentences but your child only has a few words, hold off just a bit and get those one-word requests solid and strong first! 

#2: Teach flexibly.

Research1 has shown that if you teach flexibly right from the beginning, you can establish a larger average number of words that is more natural than if you targeted just one phrase at a time. Rather than focusing on a carrier phrase like “I want,” for every single request, focus instead on the number of words you’d like to have and target that number, varying the actual words taught while still hitting that numerical target. For example, if we wanted a child to start using about 4 words in a sentence, we might prompt and teach: “Let’s go play, mom” in one scenario, “I want an apple” in another, and “Give me juice please” in yet another. All these sentences are focused on the same target (4 words) but have different words associated with different events. This is done to teach your child that they don’t simply have to add the same phrase to every request and that flexibility in responding is just as important as the actual phrase used. 

#3: Increase slowly.

Get some simple baseline data (that is, how many words, on average does your child typically use in a sentence) by observing them for a bit and counting how many words they use. Then, set your new goal just slightly higher. So, for example, if you observe that your child uses on average 2 words in a sentence – go for 3! Teach 3 for a bit and once you get that done, move to four! This slow increase will give your child some early wins and make sure teaching language remains fun and engaging. 

#4: Capitalize on motivation.

When we’re first establishing longer sentences, we want to incorporate things your child is super interested in. While it might be tempting to have them label items around the house (e.g., there’s a chair) or tell you about their day (e.g., I had goldfish for a snack), avoid these non-request parts of language in the beginning. Focus instead on increasing the words associated with specific requests and items they are very interested in. For example, “I’d like to play on the swing!” or “Let’s go outside!” Later after you’ve taught longer sentences with motivating items, you can tackle the language that is a little less motivating and related to non-requests.  

#5: Don’t require sentences all the time.

When people start targeting sentences, they often get very ambitious and want to have a child use more words every time they ask for something. Avoid doing this – it will only create frustration and increase the effort associated with asking. You want your child to sometimes be able to access items with less effort (such as the earlier one-word responses, or even a gesture) so they remain motivated and interested when you require a bit more.

Establishing more words can be challenging, but following a few small steps, you can tackle it with ease! You can create longer sentences and help your child with autism communicate with the world around them more fully. Our BCBAs and RBTs here at Trumpet Behavioral Health are trained in teaching children with autism how to make sentences the right way and at the right time. Interested in learning more? Contact us today.

1 Shillingsburg et al. (2020). Evaluation of a treatment package to increase mean length of utterances for children with autism. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 13, 659-673. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00417-y