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6 Tips for Building Vocabulary in Children with Autism

6 Tips for Building Vocabulary in Children with Autism

Building vocabulary in children with autism can be challenging because of their unique language and communication difficulties. It’s important to build their vocabulary early because vocabulary knowledge is the foundation of language comprehension. 

Autistic children may struggle to build their vocabulary for the following reasons:

  • A limited understanding of word meanings (depth)
  • They may not ask about the meaning of new words 
  • They can be disengaged from conversations occurring around them
  • They may acquire simple words at a slower rate than their peers
  • They may have limited imitation skills

We’ll explore vocabulary-building tips by age/developmental level.

1. Understand the levels of vocabulary

Vocabulary tiers are helpful in teaching vocabulary to children one word at a time. It’s important to teach across these tiers in a balanced way, selecting words according to individual language needs.

Tier 1

These are basic high-frequency words, including:

  • sight words, 
  • simple nouns, 
  • verbs, 
  • adjectives, 
  • early reading words (ex., sleep, dog, and she).

ASD children may know fewer Tier 1 words than their peers. This may be because they don’t absorb the language being used around them. They may also have developmental delays or a learning disability.

Therefore, ASD children may need these words to be taught explicitly as follows:

  • Repeating target words 
  • Using visual vocabulary cards 
  • Using expert speech and language interventions
  • Using labels 

Tier 2 and Tier 3 

Tier 2 words are also high-frequency but less concrete. For example, “because,” “explain,” and “summarize.” They’re often learned incidentally. However, if ASD children find them harder to learn, they should be taught explicitly.

Moreover, difficulties with abstract thinking may make words with multiple meanings or spellings hard to understand.

Tier 3 words are specialized, low-frequency, and context-specific. They may occur in specific subjects, occupations, or hobbies. They include metaphor, pedagogy, and atom.

Although these words are more advanced, an ASD child who struggles with Tier 2 words may understand Tier 3 words related to their special interests.

For example, if they’re interested in trains, they may know the contextual meaning of locomotive and buffer.

Teacher teaching children with a picture book

ASD students’ special interests can be a useful vocabulary source across every tier and may help to engage a reluctant child. 

The following methods could be applied to explicitly teach Tier 2 and 3 words:

  • Reuse and highlight the keywords frequently used in discussions, conversations, explanations, and reading.
  • Encourage children to ask when they don’t understand a word.
  • Encourage children to keep a record of new vocabulary in a book, word wall, or display.
  • Use visual cards or posters to illustrate word meanings.
  • Teach the meaning of the keywords at the start of a new topic
  • Teach the features of the words: word class, syllables, rhyming words, word root, and spelling.

2. Read aloud to the child

Reading aloud to children with autism is a great way to expose them to new, varied vocabulary. This is effective at any time, but especially during early childhood.

The success of shared reading depends upon the child being engaged as an active participant rather than a passive listener. If you’re unsure how to create this meaningful interaction, try the PEER model outlined below:

  • Prompt the child by asking a developmentally appropriate question 
  • Evaluate the child’s response (either affirm or repeat it back correctly)
  • Expand upon the child’s response
  • Repeat the child’s initial response and your expansion

Although dialogic reading sessions are initially adult-led, the child should gradually take the lead. For early readers, you should encourage communicative actions like pointing, vocalizations, and labeling.

It’s also important to incorporate reading into daily routines, for example, reading a story before bed.

To create a positive learning environment at home, you could read in a calm space, like a dimly lit room with few distractions. You could create a reading den using den pegs, blankets, and cushions.

While reading, you should sit together, speak calmly, be focused, and take breaks. This will create a calm environment, model positive reading behavior, and reduce disruptive behaviors.

The joint attention inherent in reading aloud enhances early language/literacy skills, social communication, and oral language development.

3. Incorporate objects and images

Using tangible objects and images to reinforce vocabulary learning in autistic children is particularly effective when teaching Tier 1 words. 

You could hold up the object or the picture card and speak the word. Depending on the child’s language level, reinforce this by holding up the written word with the object/picture and vocalizing it.

This is particularly effective if they are relevant to the child’s interests and routines, like favorite toys or items used in daily activities. 

Picture cards are also effective for simple verbs. You could hold up a card showing both the written word and picture and act it out while vocalizing it.

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Additionally, the following can also be used to build ASD children’s receptive and expressive vocabulary:

  • Picture books build vocabulary depth as words can be used in new contexts. 
  • Picture symbols help non-verbal or low-verbal children to communicate their needs. 
  • Communication boards can be applied to both play and daily activities. 
  • Multimedia resources – a tablet with a reading app or assistive technology is great for low/non-verbal children.

4. Add labels and quotes to your home or classroom

The main objectives of labeling are as follows:

  1. Understand what words mean by creating associations with objects, people, things, and actions.
  2. Use words to label objects, people, things, and actions correctly.

Labeling common objects and areas, like kitchen items, toys, or classroom supplies, is helpful. For example, you could label an object and encourage them to name or point to it when you say it.

You could also use repetition, gestures, and sounds. For example, you could say “train” while pointing to their toy/offering it to them and making a train noise.

Moreover, placing more complex language (key phrases) around the house or classroom can deepen their understanding and encourage Tier 2 words. For example, you could place “wash your hands” on the sink.

5. Encourage communication in natural settings

Encouraging communication in natural settings effectively builds vocabulary. Naturalistic interventions for young ASD children are family-friendly and encourage communication in varied settings, like mealtimes and outings. 

These flexible interventions have the following benefits:

  • Teach the meaning of new vocabulary 
  • Increase motivation and attention, reducing escape and avoidance behavior
  • Reduce dependence on prompts 
  • Generate natural-sounding language 
  • Normalize everyday distractions 
  • Instill generalizable social and language skills
  • Promote spontaneity and initiative 
  • Promote social development
  • Broaden attention and interests

Ensuring that your home is a language-rich environment can drastically improve your child’s ability to communicate and learn language.  Try arranging your environment to encourage communication. For example, provide toys that require assistance. 

You could also do the following:

  • Read aloud with your child as often as possible.
  • Engage your child in conversation frequently and with purpose.
  • Utilize positive language more than negative language.
  • Respond to all your child’s attempts to communicate with your full attention.
Mom and her daughter reading together

Your daily routines and play are fantastic learning contexts. You could build your child’s vocabulary by repeating words or phrases related to these. For example, you could say “wash, wash, wash your hands” after toilet/nappy changes or “more please!” at meal times.

You could also include scripted communication routines to encourage more advanced language constructions. 

In all these instances, it’s helpful to reinforce your vocalizations with the following:

  • Sign the words using a system like Makaton
  • Use an animated/excited tone
  • Praise for using a word/sign

6. Try Functional Communication Training (FCT)

FCT is an effective intervention for improving communication skills in autistic children. Appropriate interventions and procedures are planned and shared with caregivers and teachers.

The aim is to replace behaviors that interfere with language development: disruptive behaviors like screaming or subtle communication forms like grunting.  It teaches them how to communicate more effectively, addressing children’s individual communication needs.

Once a child is able to link their new communication behaviors to getting what they need, adult prompts can gradually fade to encourage independence. When positive reinforcement is used, the desired behaviors are more likely to be repeated and sustained across different contexts and with different people. 

Teachers and caregivers can work with therapists to incorporate FCT into their school or home life in the following ways:

  • Plan opportunities to practice new communication and positive behaviors.
  • Use varied vocabulary that’s appropriate for the child’s developmental stage.
  • Plan natural reinforcement – a reward linked to the child’s goal and preferences.
  • Organize the environment to enable positive reinforcement (placing preferred toys in sight but out of reach).
  • Organize the environment to accommodate communication prompts like the picture exchange communication system or a speech-generating device.

Building vocabulary and autism requires a lot of patience 

Patience and persistence are paramount in building ASD children’s vocabulary.  Although the rate of progress will vary from child to child, it’s likely to be gradual and requires consistency and understanding. To maintain your motivation, celebrate small milestones.

It can be a long journey, so if you’re finding it difficult or frustrating, seek support – remember, you’re not alone.  


Q: Does autism affect vocabulary?

A: Autism can affect vocabulary development differently for each individual. Some may have advanced vocabulary, while others might struggle with language skills. Factors such as individual differences play significant roles in how vocabulary is impacted.

Q: Why do autistic people struggle with language?

A: Autistic individuals may struggle with language due to differences in processing social cues and non-literal language, which can impact communication comprehension and expression. Sensory sensitivities and executive function challenges may contribute to difficulties in organizing thoughts and forming coherent sentences.

Q: Do autistic people take words literally?

A: Autistic individuals may often interpret language literally due to challenges in understanding nuances and non-literal language. However, experiences vary greatly among individuals with autism, and some may demonstrate a nuanced understanding of language

Q: How do you develop expressive language skills in autism?

A: Expressive language skills in autism are typically developed through speech therapy, AAC methods, and supportive environments that encourage communication.


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