Teaching Non-Vocal and Minimally Vocal Children with Autism

For children who do not yet speak, I usually recommend teaching 3-5 signs at a time and to teach these signs as mands first. Many of these signed mands will need hundreds of practice trials before a child will be able to request an item using a sign without assistance. Careful prompting and prompt fading across many trials per day is usually needed.

To teach a child to mand using sign language, hold out a preferred item and make sure the child wants the item by giving a “freebie” and/or looking for a reach, eye gaze, or smile. If the child does not want the item, you should not proceed. If the child wants the item and has some ability to imitate, I would then recommend you model the sign.

If the child cannot yet imitate, check for the motivation (MO) and then take the child’s hands and help him or her perform the sign. After the child performs the correct sign (with an imitative or physical prompt), deliver the reinforcer. Each time you or the child signs the word and when you deliver the reinforcer, it is important to say the item name.

I would also focus on trying to increase vocalizations by using simple inset puzzles or two sets of identical first word flash cards you can buy at the Dollar Store. As you hand the child a pig puzzle piece or a picture of a pig to match with the pig picture on the table, say the word “pig” three times (pig, pig, pig) as you hand the child the pig and as the child puts the pig in the puzzle or matches the picture. If the child says the word as he is matching, give lots of extra reinforcement but don’t worry if no words are heard during the activity. Bombarding your child with many single words a day is key so continue these activities daily.

My book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) especially chapter six should be particularly helpful in learning more about teaching non-vocal and minimally vocal children.