Teaching Body Parts to Children with Autism

Teaching children with autism to label and touch their body parts is one of the most important skills to teach. Body parts are important no matter if a child is very young and has no language or if a child is older and has some language. Over my many years working with hundreds of children with autism, I’ve come up with 3 successful strategies to help you teach this crucial skill.

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Today, I’m sharing a small excerpt from a Facebook live event I did recently, and I wanted to let you know why it’s important to teach body parts to your child or clients and the best strategies I know to teach them. Back when Lucas was little before I knew he had autism when he was just getting evaluated by early intervention for speech and language delays, there were some questions about can he identify or touch his body parts?

I mistakenly said yes even though he couldn’t. So when they assessed him and asked him to touch his belly or touch his eyes, Lucas didn’t do it. So they said to me, well you said he can touch his body parts but he can’t, so can you show us how you have him touch his body parts? So I’m like, oh sure. I have to sing the Barney song first we touch our head and then our toes and then our belly and then our nose or whatever the rhyme was. That’s the only way Lucas knew how to touch his body parts. So he was not comprehending touch eyes versus nose or head. He had no idea. And I wasn’t trying to make him look better than he was. I just was clueless about how to even assess body parts. So you might be thinking, well what’s the big deal, Mary?

I have found over the years, cause I’ve worked with hundreds of kids directly and trained thousands of people around the world, both in-person and online is that body parts should be one of the first skills we focus on for a few reasons. One is that body parts tend to be 1 syllable in length. I did a video blog on the importance of how to get kids talking. And in that, I talk about syllable length versus word length. So eyes, ears, nose, they’re all 1 syllable and they tend to be easy for kids to say. The second big reason that I really stress body parts is that the sign for eyes is actually touching your eyes. So it can be a very easy gesture even if you don’t have vocal language yet to touch your eyes and get eyes.

So you can touch your body parts and you can say it. These tend to be easier words to say. And then the third major reason that I want to teach children body parts is that if they have pain, I can find out where the pain is. I did a video blog on this years ago because my son Lucas was having head pain and headaches. And he was able to, at that point, tell me head hurts. Now he’s almost 23 years old. He can still say head hurts, but he can’t describe the pain. Like it’s stabbing pain. It comes here and it extends down here. He doesn’t have that much language that he can’t elaborate but if I didn’t know that he at least had pain, I would think these problem behaviors were caused by something else.  So those are the big 3 reasons why I really have a big focus on trying to teach body parts.

Now I want to give you 3 ways that you can start trying to teach body parts if your child or clients don’t have the ability to touch their body parts, request body parts, or label body parts. So the first way is to use a Magna doodle. And if you don’t have a Magna doodle, you can simply use a piece of paper in the same manner. You use a Magna doodle or a piece of paper and then you can just say circle, circle and you’re going to be doing the drawings. Eventually, some of my kids really like to draw and they end up drawing the body parts and talking at the same time.

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Then we would want to get them to indicate that they want the eyes drawn. So I might even say eyes and I might have the child touch his eye and draw an eye. Nose, I might touch my nose, nose. This is a very easy response. The child doesn’t have to do anything or say anything. They can simply just sit there and watch, especially in the beginning. Then mouth and I like to do teeth too because teeth are a good tact and mand. We’re going to be working on brushing teeth as well. So ears, we’re going to draw ears. We’re going to do a hat. We can make glasses especially if the child wears glasses or mommy wears glasses or the therapists. Those are just some easy ways. Again, you can use a Magna doodle or a piece of paper. You can use different color markers or a whiteboard, whatever you have on hand. But I find that that is a great way to pair up some body parts.

The second thing, I think my favorite toy in the world is Mr. Potato Head. Even if you have a 12-year-old or 14-year-old who is not labeling body parts or touching body parts on command with touch your nose and they touch their nose without you showing them, then you know, some people will say, well, potato head, that’s not aged appropriately. If they have the language ability of a 2-year-old or 3-year-old, we’re going to have to use toys that we can take apart. So we take all the parts. I just have a few of Mr. Potato Head’s parts, but I’m going to have a bag full of these parts and I’m going to start labeling them and putting them in for the child. So for shoes, I give them to the child and help the child put the shoes on Potato Head. I hold things up to my face and to my lips. Really I don’t really care about eye contact. I care about them looking at my face so that they can model my language hopefully. Everything then is worked on within potato head, worked on Magna doodle, or worked on with a piece of paper. If you have a child that is vocal to some degree, getting echoic control and getting the ability to request body parts is sometimes very, very easy.

The third way that I teach body parts in addition to the Magna doodle or a piece of paper and potato head is a lot of times I’ll use video modeling and I will use songs such as Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. I might do that just with me on a video. I might do that in person with the child, have them be touching, just like I got Lucas to do the Barney sing-songy touch your body parts. If we’re doing them out of order with potato head and with a piece of paper or a Magna doodle, we can also do them in a sing-songy fashion with Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. I had a lot of success with a client named Curt who had some pop-out words and most of them were body parts. He would say about 10 words per 2-hour session and a lot of them would be eyes and ears and nose and so I decided to make 2 video models for him. One was me singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. Another one was me just labeling body parts. So the camera’s just right on me “eyes, nose, mouth, teeth, glasses hi.” 2 weeks later I got back from a vacation. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks. I just walked in and I’m like, hi. And Curt said, “hi, eyes, nose, mouth, teeth, glasses hi.” I literally had forgotten about the video that I made that I was hoping mom would get on his iPad.  From that session on, instead of getting 10 words in a 2-hour session, I got 100 words in a 2-hour session. So it was a way for Curt and for other kids to just really go up with their language.

So in that respect, you know, the Magna doodle, the potato head, and then finally video modeling was just icing on the cake for kids like Curt who really use that to springboard their language. Curt is now in elementary school with very little support and he’s conversational. I think body parts are a great way to start teaching kids if they have no language and no ability to touch body parts, or even if they have body parts but they only say them on their own terms and you want to really strengthen that skill. I would highly recommend you check out some of these resources and get your child or clients to speak in sentences.

If you’re interested in hearing me talk more about this week’s topic, check out my podcast episode on pain indication and medical conditions.

Wherever you’re watching or reading this, I’d love it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, share this video with others who may benefit, and for more information, you can attend a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop and I’ll see you right here next week.

Start applying this information and teaching body parts today with my cheat sheet below!
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