Helping children with autism to communicate – picture by picture, word by word

Autism is characterized by difficulties with social skills, repetitive behaviours and impaired communication. It is often accompanied by sensory challenges. According to the Center for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States.

People on the autism spectrum learn, think and problem solve differently from their typically developing peers. These differences mean traditional teaching strategies are often less effective, especially those that rely heavily on verbal instructions and social reinforcement.

But there are alternative methods of teaching to help people on the autism spectrum develop language and other skills.

flashcards for autism

Flashcards and ABA therapy

Recent studies using brain scans suggest many people with autism find it difficult to tune out irrelevant details in order to focus on what is important. This difference in processing information needs to be considered when teaching a person with autism. A lesson is more likely to be retained if it is simple and focused, with plenty of opportunity for repetition.

Whilst people with autism may struggle with conventional teaching methods, there is substantial evidence they have strengths when it comes to processing visual information. In fact, visual imagery has been used to encourage students to initiate social exchanges (Krantz and McClannahan 1998), to spend more time on tasks and to complete those tasks correctly (Bryan and Gast, 2000) as well as to behave in a more appropriate way (Massey and Wheeler, 2000).

The Picture Exchange System (PECS) is a visual resource popular among educators of students with autism. PECS is a way for people to communicate without relying on speech. Instead, they use cards with pictures, symbols or words that represent tasks, actions or objects.

In addition to PECS, educators often use flashcards to teach students with autism. Flashcards are a key part of most Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) programs. Studies show ABA assists with social, communication and self-care skills.

Using flashcards to build language skills

Flashcards are a great teaching resource because they present information visually and help to break down complex concepts. Studies have shown that many people with autism process visual information better than spoken or written.

Flashcards work well for children and adults, people who are verbal and non-verbal and for mainstream as well as specialist educational settings.

Flashcards can be used in a variety of different ways for activities that require matching, sorting and touching. They can be used to enhance expressive language and as a prompt for performing a concept (eg ‘Show me feeling scared’).

Although simple in design, flashcards can be used for teaching progressively more complex concepts. For example, the image of a dolphin may be used to teach vocabulary (eg the word ‘dolphin’), sentence structure (eg ‘The dolphin is swimming’), categorization (eg ‘The dolphin is an animal’) and spatial reasoning (eg ‘The dolphin is in the water’).

Flashcard activities for people with autism

Here are some of the ways flashcards can be used to assist a person with autism:

I work with students on the autistic spectrum and purchased the Verb and Categories sets. They are a perfect resource to increase expressive and receptive language skills. Each picture clearly identifies the verb and category intended. I also like that the cards are large and are constructed very well. I would highly recommend!

Jessica Rowe

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