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Games to build conversational skills

Molly was diagnosed with autism at age two. She was quiet—almost non-verbal—and did not play with other children. She had difficulty communicating her needs to her parents. Molly also had severe tantrums and trouble maintaining a regular sleep pattern. She did not appear to be a typical two-year-old. She seldom smiled or laughed. Her parents were afraid to leave the house and avoided family get-togethers.

While her parents were, of course, worried about Molly’s behavior problems, they were even

more focused on the goal of helping Molly learn to communicate appropriately—with words.

Below are a few ideas to help build conversational skills through games:


The key to keeping the child interested is to use activities that are especially fun for them. For many kids, playing with a ball or a toy can be very interesting. This makes them the perfect activity to work on language skills.

The purpose of this exercise is to improve functional communication, the use of language to

satisfy a need or want. Here are a few guidelines to get started:

1. Allow the child to play alone with the ball or a toy for a few moments

2. Once the child seems interested, try and involve yourself in his play.

3. Take the car, ignoring the protests, and roll it down the ramp or pathway. Then give

it back to the child. Take a turn every few minutes.

4. When the child is used to your presence, add a language routine into the mix. Take

the car and hold it at the top of the ramp. Say "Let's…." Then, just before you let go of the car, shout, "Go!"

5. Repeat this activity several times. After a few repetitions, begin pausing before you

say, "Go" Finally, stop saying "Go" and wait to go until the child says the word.

Reward any approximation of the word or any sound at all from the child.

6. When the child has mastered this activity in the context of the car ramp, expand to

other situations, such as riding in a shopping cart, sliding at the park, or rolling a

ball. Try to incorporate as many different situations as you can.

What Does the Pig Say?

For children who are non- verbal, any type of appropriate verbalization is an important step. This exercise focuses on animal sounds, which are a great way to practice speech. This activity can be adapted to even vehicle sounds if that is something that fascinates your child.

Visual aids can be especially helpful for children with autism. Simply follow these steps:

1. Print out the pictures of the animals or cars, and cut them out. You may want to print

them on thick paper and laminate them for durability

2. Sit facing the child, and hold the animal card within the child's line of sight.

3. Say, The cow says "Moo." Repeat this same phrasing for each animal card.

4. The next time you run through the cards, say, "the cow says?" and then pause. Wait

for the child to fill in the sound. It's okay if you have to wait for a while.

5. When the child is able to say all the animal noises, bring out corresponding toy

animals and use those instead of the cards.

I Want More

Anyone who has spent time with a young child will tell you that the word "more" gets a lot of use. This handy word can apply to activities like bouncing or swinging or rolling a ball, as well as to food and toys. "More" is an essential word for functional communication.

Here are a few guidelines to help your child communicate his needs for ‘More’

1. Choose a tasty treat the child enjoys, such as fruit snacks, or biscuits, or even pastry.

2. Have the child sit across from you at a table. Place one small piece of the treat in

front of the child and a large pile of treats in front of you.

3. After the child has eaten her treat, hold up another one. Clearly say "More." Give her

the treat. Repeat this a couple of times.

4. Next, hold up the treat and wait for her to say "More". If the child is struggling with the speech aspect of this activity, choose a token or picture to represent the word

"More" or use a hand sign to represent this word.

5. When the child is saying "More" appropriately in this situation, expand it to include other activities she wants.

Rhyming Time

The patterns and sounds that go with poems and nursery rhymes can be especially fun and

interesting for kids on the spectrum. You can build on this interest by using rhymes to help the child learn important functional phrases and the situations where they appear. Try some of these ideas, and make up your own as well:

● "At the end of dinner, I don't get confused./ I just say, 'May I be excused'"

● "If I want to play, I have learned,/ I can say, 'May I have a turn?'"

● "When someone says "Hi!", I know what to do./ I just say, 'Hello! How are you?'";

I Need Help!

Another important activity for improving functional communication involves setting up

situations where a child needs to ask for your help. Kids on the spectrum can be extremely self-sufficient, helping themselves to snacks or devising ingenious ways to reach the toys they need. However, with some forethought, you can set up situations where the child needs to ask you for help.

Follow these steps to get your child using language to meet his needs:

1. Make a list of things the child wants on a regular basis. These items may include

favorite toys, videos, music equipment, books, snacks, or other objects.

2. Find a spot in the room where the child cannot reach these objects but they are still

well within his sight. Place one of the items there, and then wait for the child to notice.

3. Model the proper way to ask for help, such as saying "Help please". Have the child say the words after you.

4. Place another item in the same spot and wait to see what the child does. You may

need to prompt him several times, but eventually, he'll begin asking.

5. Next, try to incorporate this activity in more general situations and other settings.

Using Board Games

Turn taking is an important behavior for social language, since in mimics the back and forth

nature of conversation. Using this printable game board of a train marker, you can turn this

essential skill into a game. Simply follow these steps:

1. Print out the game board and markers, and cut them out. You'll also need a die with

easy-to-read numbers on it. Each player receives a train marker.

2. To play the game, each player must ask a question of the other person. Then the

player can roll the dice and move her piece to the specified number of spaces.

3. The other player must answer the question and ask another question to the first

player. Then she can roll the dice and move.

4. Players continue asking and answering questions and moving the markers until one

player reaches the end of the tracks. That person is the winner.

Let's Pretend

The goal is to teach the child with autism how to engage in play with his or her peers. Pretend play can be tricky for children on the spectrum, but all it takes is a bit of practice.

Work with the kids as they play. For each game, talk about the roles and interactions as they

happen. Try some of these common games:

• House

• School

• Store

• Doctor

• Ice cream parlor

• Restaurant

Mystery Box

Asking questions is an important component of language, but this can be a challenge for many children with autism. Like many language skills, this one takes practice. It's also essential that the child feel interested in the activity. You can encourage interest by rewarding appropriate questions with stickers.

Follow these steps to encourage question-asking:

1. Gather up a shoe box and several objects. The objects should be very different from

one another. For example, you might choose a spoon, a rock, a toy car, and a key.

2. Place one object in the bag, and tell the child you're ready to start answering questions.

3. When the child asks a question about the object, such as, "Is it big?" give the child a

sticker and answer the question.

4. After the child has guessed the object and received the agreed-upon number of stickers, reward him or her with a prize.

5. For variety, have the child hide an object, and you ask questions about it.

As you promote the child's language skills, keep the following tips in mind:

• Remember that some children with autism have trouble understanding verbal

instruction. If possible, give the activity instructions in a variety of formats.

• Introduce these activities gradually to avoid overwhelming the child. It's best to work

on one language-related game at a time.

• Make the language activities fun and praise all progress, no matter how small.

• Read often and for long periods of time. This exposure to language is important for all children and essential for kids with autism.


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