7 Autism Behavior and Communication Strategies

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder which affects an estimated 1 in 54 U.S. children, causes a wide array of symptoms that vary in severity. Many of these symptoms impact behavior and communication, such as social withdrawal, repetition of words (echolalia), and difficulty interpreting body language or nonverbal cues. 

These types of symptoms can make it difficult for children who have ASD to express themselves, converse with others, or maintain relationships. However, by leveraging a combination of techniques, therapists — such as applied behavior analysts — can help children with ASD improve their communication skills. We’ll examine four of those techniques in this article, along with three autism behavioral strategies for therapists and counselors. 

How Does Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Affect Behavior and Communication? 

Autism spectrum disorder can affect communication or behavior in a variety of ways, depending on the individual. Here are a few examples: 

  • Avoiding eye contact during conversations or other social situations
  • Displaying a lack of empathy for others
  • Engaging in repetitive motions or behaviors
  • Engaging in self-harming or self-destructive behaviors, which may also be repetitive (such as banging their head repeatedly) 
  • Failing to interpret social cues correctly  
  • Focusing obsessively on a single subject 
  • Lack of interest in socializing with others
  • Speaking in a flat or monotonous fashion 

These symptoms may be more noticeable or disruptive in some children than others. For children with severe symptoms of ASD, various techniques (and technologies) can be used to address behavior and improve communication. 

4 Autism Communication Strategies for Counselors and Therapists

There is a range of methods which therapists can explore in order to help children with ASD expand and improve their communication skills. Some of these methods require minimal equipment, while others utilize sophisticated technology to accomplish their goals. Here are four examples, including a few pros and cons of each.  

Strategy #1: Using Communication Boards

Some children with ASD, such as children with nonverbal autism, may have difficulty speaking. Communication boards enable nonverbal children to express themselves by pointing or gesturing at images, which might be photographs, illustrations, or symbols. Communication boards can be highly sophisticated pieces of technology — or devices as simple as bulletin boards.

  • Pros — Communication boards are simple to make and use. 
  • Cons — Electronic communication boards can potentially be expensive and inaccessible.

Strategy #2: Using a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Similar to a communication board, a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses images to represent thoughts and requests. Through the use of PECS, children with ASD can quickly and efficiently communicate specific needs, whether to their therapists, their family members, or to others. 

  • Pros — PECS has been shown to promote “small to moderate gains in communication,” according to some research. Additionally, other studies have noted that “the first three stages of PECS are effective to highly effective in teaching children to request preferred items.” PECS may also help children successfully adjust to using speech generating devices (SGDs), which we’ll discuss later.
  • Cons — Unlike a homemade communication board, a PECS may offer a limited range of images for children to choose from. 

Strategy #3: Using Speech Generating Devices (SGDs)

Like its name suggests, a speech generating device (SGD) is a piece of equipment that produces speech for the user, either through alphabet keys or visual symbols. Various studies have shown that SGDs can be effective, particularly for children and young adults aged 3 to 20 years old. 

  • Pros — SGDs are generally convenient and easy to use. Additionally, by enabling users to create speech (rather than choosing from a pre-selected set of images), SGDs can help to facilitate interactions with others. 
  • Cons — Speech generating devices can be costly, which might limit accessibility. 

Strategy #4: Using Sign Language

As of 2019, roughly 1 million people were using American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication. Learning ASL can open tremendous doors for children with ASD, facilitating communication with a wide community of ASL users. 

  • Pros — Sign language offers children a way of expressing themselves quickly and in detail.
  • Cons — Sign language can be challenging to master, and may not be accessible for children who have limited dexterity or use of their hands and fingers. 

It is important for therapists to weigh the potential drawbacks against the potential benefits when deciding upon an appropriate type of assistive technology, or method of increasing communication, for each patient. Each child has unique needs, abilities, and limitations which must be assessed when, for instance, weighing sign language against communication boards. 

3 Behavioral Strategies for Autism: ABA Therapy and Other Approaches

Communication boards, sign language, SGDs, and PECS can all empower a child with ASD to express himself or herself more effectively. However, while these resources can improve a child’s communication skills, additional strategies may be needed to address behavior. Three examples of autism behavior management strategies are discussed below, including applied behavior analysis (ABA), relationship development intervention (RDI), and sensory integration therapy.


Strategy #1: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) 

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is one of the most widely used therapies for children with autism. The purpose of ABA therapy is to help patients manage and modify certain behaviors, making it easier to overcome social challenges and avoid disruptions to learning. 

Most experts recommend that children with ASD receive anywhere from 20 to 40 hours of ABA therapy per week, receiving rewards for positive behaviors while negative behaviors are ignored. ABA techniques can be used at home or in a clinical setting, providing flexibility while offering ample opportunities for children to practice and develop their skills for a real-world setting.  

There are several types of ABA certifications that therapists can pursue, depending on their goals and interests. For example, a behavioral analyst who already has his or her master’s degree in ABA may wish to take the exam to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). An alternative is to earn an Autism Certificate (AC), which prepares educators and healthcare professionals to work with children who have ASD, through a program like the Graduate Certificate in Autism at National University

Strategy #2: Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

Relationship development intervention, or RDI, is a form of behavioral therapy that specifically emphasizes social behaviors, such as taking turns with other children, learning to interpret body language and facial expressions, or improving eye contact with others. In an RDI-based approach, a therapist sets certain goals for the child after assessing his or her needs. The family then works to help the child reach those goals, while receiving feedback from and maintaining communication with the therapist. 

Strategy #3: Sensory Integration Therapy

While ABA therapy focuses on reinforcing desired behaviors, and RDI focuses on building social skills, sensory integration therapy approaches behavior from a different angle, specifically targeting issues caused by hypersensitivity — a common symptom among children with ASD, who may be highly sensitive to light, textures, sounds, or other sources of sensory stimulation. In this type of therapy, the therapist slowly introduces the child to increasingly intense stimuli, being careful never to exert force or push too far beyond the child’s limits. 

Apply to National University to Earn Your Master’s Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis 

Pursue your professional goals while making a positive difference in the lives of children and teenagers. Become a certified autism specialist, an ABA therapist, a school counselor, or explore similar career paths by applying to National University

At National University, we offer more than 75 accredited degree programs for undergraduate, graduate, and transfer students, including on-campus and online programs in fields like ABA, school psychology, educational counseling, and more. To learn more about applying to one of our ABA degree programs, or to request information about our scholarships and benefits for military students, contact the NU admissions office today.  

Additional Sources

https://online.regiscollege.edu/blog/4-methods-for-increasing-communication-within-applied-behavior-analysis/ 

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html 

https://www.medicinenet.com/autism_symptoms_and_signs/symptoms.htm 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928 

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet#3082_2 

https://www.healthline.com/health/communication-board 

https://nationalautismresources.com/the-picture-exchange-communication-system-pecs/ 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20181849/ 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5036660/ 

https://www.newsweek.com/asl-day-2019-american-sign-language-1394695 

https://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/sites/autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/documents/Speech-Generating-Devices-Complete-10-2010.pdf 

https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/certification/ 

https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/lists/5-types-of-behavior-therapy-for-individuals-with-autism/ 

https://www.rdiconnect.com/teaching-social-skills-with-rdi/ 

https://www.autismspeaks.org/sensory-issues