Communication, effective communication, is like two people throwing a ball back and forth. Effective communication is also not just spoken language, but it is behavior, body language, facial expression and much more. There are many ways effective communication can become ineffective. I won't take the time to describe all of the ways; however I will say one thing ... all children with ASD struggle with social interaction and communication. Children with ASD may experience difficulties in expressive, receptive or in pragmatic language. These difficulties can often lead to the child using their behavior to communicate.
Some children on the spectrum may have limited verbal abilities, or they may be considered nonverbal. Roughly 50% percent of children with autism are considered nonverbal. That doesn't mean, however, that they do not have communication. When we say that an individual with autism isn't communicating we usually mean that they do not speak or that they do not have verbal language. But remember this basic thought, just because someone does not talk, does not mean that they are not communicating. The nonverbal child will communicate using non-symbolic behaviors, such as pointing, gestures, and pulling to communication partner toward a desired object. The nonverbal child will use behavior as a primary means of communication.
Another large group of children with ASD use echolalia to communicate. What is echolalia? Echolalia is when a child actually repeats back what he heard. There are two broad categories of echolalia; immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is when someone in the environment says something and a child immediately repeats it. For example, if I asked the child, "Do you want a cookie?" the child would repeat back, "Do you want a cookie?" With delayed echolalia, the child states something that he heard hours or days ago. There are a couple important things to remember about echolalia. First, echolalia is a natural stage of language development. Do not try to extinguish it. Second, echolalia can be functional communication. Nick, a close family friend, happens to have autism. Nick started with little verbal language and progressed through a ton of 'movie' echolalia. One of our favorite functional phrases was from the movie Stuart Little. At a point in the movie Snowball, the family cat, picks up Stuart, the family's adopted mouse, in his mouth. The mother walks in and sternly pointing her finger states, "You don't eat family members." Snowball then spits Stuart out of his mouth. Whenever Nick did something he could get in trouble for he would stand up, point his finger at his mother and say very matter of fact, "You don't eat family members!" The purpose of this example is not to promote the movie; it is to promote the idea that echolalia is functional.
There is still another group of children, children on the spectrum with Asperger Disorder or high functioning autism, who are verbal — very verbal. Many children with ASD who are verbal may still use their behavior to communicate. Why? Because it works and because even though they have verbal language they may be missing the ability to fully receive a communication partner's message. That means they may be pretty good at throwing the communication ball but they may not be very good at 'catching' the communication ball.
If a child does not have an effective communication system, that is the first place to start in planning. Effective communication can take many different forms. The child may be able to verbally state wants and needs or a child may need an augmentative or alternative form to communicate. If the child is nonverbal, consider establishing an alternative communication system. Alternative systems are both high and low tech. An example of a high tech system would be a voice output device and an example of low tech could be a picture communication board. Lastly, when making the decision to provide a child an alternative system, make sure you take the child's needs and preferences into consideration.
Remember, everyone communicates ...