Autism Resources

Switching Children with Autism from Alternative Communication to Vocal Language

Amber Valentino March 23, 2022

Behavior analysts have well-established tools and procedures to teach kids with autism to ask for the things they want. There are a variety of systems that can be used if your child with autism isn’t quite ready to communicate vocally. Some of these systems include sign language, pictures, and voice output devices. Here at Trumpet Behavioral Health, we created and published an assessment that identifies the optimal system for early language training, and we use it in our everyday practice. 

Once you’ve established some basic one-word requests, you might be asking: when can I drop the alternative system and solely use vocal language? This question is usually fueled by the fact that most children will start to vocalize a little bit with an alternative system – for example, you might hear “ah” when a child makes the sign for “apple” or the sound “ba” when they ask for a ball using a picture. This early vocal language development is very encouraging and a great sign – however, it’s important to transition to vocal speech at exactly the right time. If you try too early, your child with autism may be left without an effective means to communicate and will likely get frustrated with your attempts to push vocal speech only.

5 Ways to Know Your Child with Autism is Ready to Switch from Alternative Communication to Vocal Language

So how do you know when your child is ready to “drop” the alternative system and communicate with vocal speech only? Here are 5 tips to knowing you’re ready. You’ll know you’re ready if your child with autism….

1. Can echo most sounds and words, reliably.

The ability to echo sounds and words is incredibly important. Your child should echo most sounds and words you present to them before you switch to vocal speech only. This skill is important because you’ll rely on their ability to echo when you prompt new words and sounds. If they can’t echo, you won’t have an effective teaching strategy. If you’re not sure whether your child can echo reliably, try making a list of about 20 sounds and words that you’ve heard your child try to say. Grab something that they like (a treat or toy), show it to them and present some of the sounds. Does your child echo them? Do they do so consistently? If so, this is a good sign you might be ready to transition to vocal speech only.  

2. Consistently and accurately uses their alternative system.

Your child should correctly use the system you’ve established first – sign language, pictures, or other augmentative communication systems. This consistent use of an alternative system is important for a few reasons. First, you want them to have a positive, successful experience asking for the things they want and getting them. Second, many strategies rely on the use of alternative systems to develop vocal speech. If your child with autism doesn’t use that system reliably yet, those strategies won’t work.

3. Engages in little to no challenging behavior while asking for items they want. 

If your child commonly bites, scratches, or aggresses when they want something, trying to teach vocal speech during that challenging behavior will likely make the behavior worse. Instead, spend time establishing requests with the alternative system so your child knows this is the easiest way to communicate, then evaluate a transition to vocal speech.

4. Is a willing and motivated learner. 

You’ll want to be sure your child with autism is willing to sit and learn with you and other instructors before venturing into vocal language. Because we can’t prompt vocal speech in the same way we do other behaviors, we must rely on the child being willing to persist and work toward sound development before they make the transition. This willingness and motivation typically come through some experience with an ABA program. Kids with autism find out that learning is fun, and they want to do more of it! So, it is suggested that you get an established and effective ABA program in place with well-trained professionals to establish this willingness and persistence that will pave the way for teaching vocal communication.

5. Is motivated by a variety of items and activities. 

You’ll use this motivation to teach vocal skills, so you’ll want to be sure that your child is interested in a variety of things. If they aren’t interested in a variety of things yet, that’s okay! ABA practitioners can expand the repertoire of interest and motivators through some basic procedures, but you’ll want to focus on this first prior to venturing into vocal speech. 

Related: Helping Children with Autism Learn to Communicate

Making the transition away from an alternative communication system to vocal language can be an exciting milestone for children with autism. The decision can also be difficult to make, particularly if you’re not sure if your child is ready. Teaching vocal language when your child is ready can be life-changing. 

Our BCBAs and RBTs here at Trumpet Behavioral Health are trained in teaching this important skill the right way and at the right time. They are eager to help you make this important decision and establish prerequisite skills to get your child ready to be a vocal learner. Interested in learning more? Contact us today.