Improving Pronunciation & Articulation in Children with Autism

Kids with autism, whether they start talking when they’re two, four, or eight, often have really problematic articulation that doesn’t always follow the typically developing rules. Their articulation can be really difficult to understand. So today I’m going to discuss articulation issues and my system that can help kids talk more clearly.

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A few months ago, I also started a weekly Turn Autism Around podcast, so you can check that out or just search “turn autism around” on iTunes. I have several podcast episodes about language which you might find helpful. So before we get started with today’s topic of articulation, I just want to give a disclaimer. I’m not a speech pathologist. I am a behavior analyst and the author of The Verbal Behavior Approach. And I have worked collaboratively with lots of speech pathologists over the past two decades, first with my son and then with many of my clients to help me to understand articulation better. So I’m certainly not an expert, but I do want to give you some articulation tips that you can implement to help kids speak more clearly and understand how to collaborate for kids with really troublesome articulation.

Many young children when they first learn to talk have poor articulation. Their words are not clear and they may have trouble saying certain consonants like R’s, F’s or blends, especially ones like “sh” or “bl”. So words with consonants and blends may be really hard for parents to understand. It is completely normal for typically developing kids to have certain consonants and blends come in later. In chapter 6 of my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach, I have a whole chapter on non-vocal to vocal and getting kids from not talking to talking. In this chapter, I briefly address articulation issues that I faced with my son, Lucas, and with other kids early in my career.

In 2003, I started my first position as a behavior analyst with the Pennsylvania Verbal Behavior Project.  I was in multiple classrooms working eventually with hundreds of kids and consulting with their teachers and their team to help them improve. I remember back in one of my first classroom visits, I was working with a particular teacher. I can still picture this child, I don’t remember his name and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to disclose it, but let’s just call him Ron. So Ron was an 8 year old who had some verbal language, vocal language, and he was going through mixed VB sessions. So the teacher was saying, “touch the banana.” She was holding up a cup and saying, “what’s this called?” She was doing mixed VB. She might have been doing imitation, touch your head and touch your body parts. I was observing her teaching session and what I found with Ron as well as many other children is that his articulation was okay for single syllables, and maybe some multiple syllable words, like 2 syllable words.

So he was okay with cup spoon, cat, dog, pig, eyes, ears, and those kind of one syllable words. They were clear. He also knew how to clearly say some of the 2 syllable words like Mama, mommy or tractor. So there were some 2 syllable words that he was also clear with, but there were some words that were completely not understandable. I remember bulldozer and dinosaur. She might say, “what’s this?” And he’d say “cup.” And I could hear that.  If my back was turned, I would know that  that was cup if I didn’t see the picture. But then when she’d hold up bulldozer, he’d be like “bulldozer”, but in an unclear way (see the video above for the exact response).  That’s not clear and the same thing with dinosaur. It may have been a little clearer than bulldozer, but you get the idea. So in essence, while she was working on him labeling, he was practicing errors. He was getting credit for correct responses, but they were completely not understandable. What I did in this classroom is I came up with my number one, number two and number three words system. This is outlined in my book The Verbal Behavior Approach in chapter 6 if you own the book. My book is more than a decade old so since then I have made my system even more clear by eliminating the number three words. But let’s talk about the number one, two, and three words system because I think this is helpful.

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There are many parts of the world where there’s not a speech pathologist available. You might be on a waiting list and there needs to be a lot of collaboration between everybody on the team, especially the parents. So let me just go over my general system and it might help you to help a student or your own child. So, number one words are words that are clear to a stranger or if a person had their back turned and was holding up pictures, they’d be able to understand what the child was saying without looking at what the picture was. Number one words are more likely to be one syllable words. I did a video blog on this, called, the best way to get your child talking so you may want to check that out as well. So number one words are usually one, maybe two syllables in length, and they are clear.

Number two words are missing a part. Some kids drop off the ending. So instead of saying “car,” they might say “ca” and so it’s close, but we’re missing an end. Or some kids put a schwa ending, an “a” ending on words. My son used to do this, which is in my book in chapter 6. If I’d hold up a cup at one point he was saying, “cuppa”. And that’s because we were overemphasizing, we were saying say “cup” and we were adding a little “a” sound at the end. So the way we got rid of that is to not emphasize that ending. So something in the number two words is missing or messed up, but generally it’s close.

Number three words are words where there’s a lot going on for instance, its three syllables, and/or it has R’s and blends. Those sorts of words can be used to work on receptive ID, like touch the dinosaur, but we shouldn’t be practicing completely unintelligible words. So number three words are off the charts and that’s where I simplified my version over the years. Now I just go with number one and number two words. Number one words are words that are clear to a stranger or with your back turned and number two words are close but not great.

What I’ve learned also over the years from other speech pathologists, like Rose Griffin, who I did a podcast episode with at marybarbera.com/10, and Dr. Barbara Esch, is that we shouldn’t be focusing on words. Rather, we should be focusing on syllables. Kids who are starting to learn to talk or talk more, that have autism often have a lot of errors and we need more practice on the good words. So that’s why I really encourage teams, parents, and professionals to get number one words on a list, preferably an alphabetized list, such as an Excel sheet or a Google sheet. The number one words we should know and the number two words we should know and we should know what’s missing from that word or how it sounds right this second. It’s super important to keep number one words really fluid.

In my book I talk about how Lucas could say “water” and then all of a sudden he was saying “warer” and I didn’t know how to fix it.  When he’d say “warer” or “water”, I would give him water. So if he says “warer” and I give him water, it reinforces the “warer” instead of trying to shape up the word water. There’s just all kinds of ways to try to keep the bar high. One of the major ways is for everybody to know what a number one word is for this particular child and what a number two word is, and to work with a speech pathologist if at all possible on the number two words to try to get them shaped up. I recommend printing out this form, having it in the child’s binder at school, having it on the refrigerator at home and moving those number two words over as we get those mastered into the number one words column. I’ve had a lot of success with this poor man’s articulation program, if you will.

It’s just a really common sense way to try to improve articulation. The most important thing is that everybody needs to work as a team, because language happens all the time, not just for an hour a week or a half an hour a day. We want to be making sure that everybody knows what the words are that the child can say and work on improving those all the time. In summary, parents, professionals, and school teams need to be on the same page and keep the bar really high for the number one words, and move those number two words over as quickly as possible. Improving articulation requires this major team effort. So I hope that this has helped you to begin thinking about how you might be able to identify number one and number two words and work together to get those words clear. Wherever you’re watching/reading this, leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up and share this video with others who might benefit. And for more information and to sign up for a free online workshop, go to marybarbera.com/workshop and I’ll see you right here next week.

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