Improving Learning, Communication and Behavior of Children with ASD – Part 1

Autism spectrum disorders impact millions of children, adults and their families around the world. As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, autism is a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Each individual with an autism spectrum disorder can have a wide range of characteristics and skills. As a result they have levels of disability that range from severe to very mild. My research at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) focuses on how to establish socially acceptable communication among children with autism spectrum disorder who engage in less conventional or socially unacceptable communication strategies. My research projects focus on using a combination of communication boards and speech generating devices that use a wide range of graphic symbols (pictures, line drawings, printed words/phrases or letters) to help these children produce communication.

Augment Verbal Communication to Facilitate Speech and Learning

Many children with autism spectrum disorder struggle with spoken communication. Children with autism spectrum disorder have a greater tendency to use problem behavior such as tantrums to communicate. My research suggests that children communicate more effectively using graphic symbols and/or gestures to supplement any existing vocal behavior. As these forms of communication are established there is often a corresponding decrease in problem behavior.

  • Graphic symbols: photos, line drawings, laminated boards with picture symbols and micro-computer speech generating devices to supplement or replace speech.
  • Gestures: signs, gestures or a combination of the two as methods of communicating.

Teaching learners with ASD to use graphic symbols, speech generating devices and gestures can help mitigate common problem behaviors children use to avoid a specific activity that they may find particularly difficult. For example, a learner may throw a tantrum to escape a difficult math activity. To help him replace tantrums with a more acceptable alternative to express himself, we provide a symbol that means “requesting assistance.” Using the symbol instead of a tantrum and positively reinforcing the learner’s use of the symbol teaches him to better self-regulate his behavior. When parents or educators ignore behaviors like fussing or minor tantrums, learners will begin to understand that more socially acceptable behavior can result in the same or better outcome than they previous obtained. For example, using the symbol not only gets assistance but also allows the activity to be completed more quickly so the learner has more time to spend on something he likes (such as time on the computer) before the next structured activity begins.

Many parents and some educators are reluctant to use graphic symbols and gestures as communication tools because they believe it will hinder a child’s verbal speech progress. In actuality, my research has shown that implementing unique approaches to communication helps facilitate speech. There is evidence (Wendt, 2009)   that suggests that children who use graphics and gestures can increase their probability of acquiring speech and vocal output and enhance their ability to understand speech (Harris & Reichle, 2004).

Because each child with autism spectrum disorder is unique, they require customized alternative treatments that they best respond to. Oftentimes, a period of trial and error is necessary to figure out which communication systems and intervention strategies are more effective. Check back next week to learn about three helpful strategies for parents and teachers to reduce problem behavior and improve communication.

–Joe Reichle, Educational Psychology, CEHD


Harris, M., and Reichle, J. (2004).  The impact of aided language stimulation on symbol comprehension and production in nonverbal children with moderate cognitive disabilities.  American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 13, 155-167.

Wendt, O. (2009). Research on the Use of Manual Signs and Graphic Symbols in ASD: A Systematic Review. In P. Mirenda & T. Iacono (Eds.). Autism Spectrum Disorders and AAC. Paul H. Brookes, Baltimore.

Joe Reichle

About the Author

Joe Reichle, Ph.D.

  • Educational Psychology
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, College of Liberal Arts
  • University of Minnesota

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