Communication Characteristics of Young Children with Autism

Communication Characteristics of Young Children with Autism
Why children with autism learn language differently may best be described by looking at the language characteristics of children with autism. In this article I will describe four areas of interest when studying the communication skills of children with autism: joint attention, gestures, imitation skills, difficulty using symbolic communication.

I. Joint Attention Skills in Children with Autism

Joint attention is achieved when a child looks at an object of interest (e.g., a funny action toy) and then to the parent to see if she is sharing the experience. Neuro-typically developing children acquire this skill during the first 6 months of life. This is an important pre-linguistic stage in social language development because it demonstrates the infant’s desire to share a common experience through social eye gaze as well as the ability to shift attention and eye gaze from an object to the parent. Children with autism have particular difficulty developing joint attention skills for a number of reasons: decreased eye contact, abnormal patterns of eye gaze, limited attention span, decreased awareness of others in the environment and decreased shared references.

II. Use of Gestures in Children with Autism

Typically developing infants use conventional gestures such as pointing and waving between 8-12 months of age. Children with autism often have difficulty learning to use conventional gestures. The concept of pointing to objects at a distance or to pictures in a book may have little importance or meaning for a child with autism. If children with autism have difficulty sharing references (i.e., joint attention) then conventional gestures, such as pointing, have little meaning for them. Rather, they will often use less mature and even unconventional gestures such as leading an adult by the hand to desired items, pushing items away in protest and using people as tools to act on their environment (i.e., placing an adult’s hand on objects to request opening containers or activating toys; using an adult’s finger to point to pictures in a book). Placing an adult’s hand on an object to use it as a tool is an unconventional gesture that is unique to children with autism.

III. Imitation Skills in Children with Autism

Neuro-typically developing infants begin to imitate play actions in games such as pat-a-cake around 9 months of age. Children with autism have difficulty developing imitation skills because of poor attention and limited shared affect (i.e., joint attention). They often pay little attention to others’ actions and instead demonstrate a greater interest in objects. Children with autism also tend to become preoccupied with self-stimulatory behaviors (e.g., rocking, flapping, jumping, moving fingers or objects close to their eyes, etc.) rather than attending to other people.

IV. Why Children with Autism Have Difficulty Using Symbolic Communication

What is symbolic communication? Symbolic communication is the act of expressing your thoughts through language (i.e., a symbol that has a shared meaning between you and your listener). Types of symbols include: spoken words, written words, pictures, photographs, sign language, object and tactile symbols.

Neuro-typically developing children begin to use their first words between 12-18 months of age. Poor joint attention and imitation skills as well as difficulty processing and/or discriminating speech from background noise all contribute to the child with autism’s difficulty in using symbolic communication.

Children with autism generally use pre-symbolic communication to express their wants and needs. Your child may pull you by the hand to show you what he wants; he may cry and scream when a favorite toy is taken away, he may push undesired items away. These pre-symbolic forms of communication are usually very effective for meeting many of your child’s basic needs.

I have had many parents tell me that they know what their child wants because he brings items or takes them by the hand to what he wants. Often parents feel that their child’s pre-symbolic communication in the form of physical manipulation of the environment and unconventional gestures are enough to communicate his basic wants and needs. I ask parents, how does your child communicate he needs a drink when he is at the park? How do you know what he wants when he points to a shelf full of favorite DVDs? What about the times when he tantrums and can’t tell you what is wrong?

While pre-symbolic means of communicating maybe effective in many instances, our goal is to teach your child to move beyond these immature and atypical communication styles. Your child needs to learn to use the most sophisticated means of symbolic communication he is capable of. The sooner you teach your child to use a symbolic means of communicating the greater the likelihood he will begin to use speech to communicate!

In summary, children with autism have difficulty learning language and communication skills because they have difficulty achieving joint attention, they often do not pay attention to gestures and as a result they are not able to imitate the actions of others. This includes imitation of speech and learning to use symbolic communication which are critical components to speech and language development.


  1. Wetherby, A. & Prizant, B. (2001). Autism spectrum disorders: A transactional developmental perspective. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  2. Janzen, J. (1996). Understanding the nature of autism. San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders.

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