My child can speak but he rarely talks to me spontaneously. What should I do?

Lack of initiation to communicate is a core issue in individuals with ASD with various levels of language ability and various functioning levels. Although some autistic children have age-appropriate language skills, it’s typical for them to talk to others only when they need to fulfil own needs like requesting items and asking for help, rather than communicating for social purposes. And it causes parents always find them quiet and passive, and sometimes feel frustrated as they repetitively ask them questions, wishing them to share their feelings, thoughts and opinions. Some strategies are listed as below for your reference.

1. Create Needs and Obstacles

One strategy to increase spontaneous speech at home is to create needs and obstacles that our children cannot fulfil or solve by themselves. It is often the case that our children are very independent to complete routines and chores without asking for assistance. Therefore, from time to time, we need to create noticeable disruptions in routines, for example hiding one shoe away, no water in his/her cup, and giving mismatched socks to the child, and guide them to say the right words to you to fix the problem. When they can spontaneously say the right words, we can teach them different words or sentence structures to ask for the same type of assistance, or we can create new needs or problems that they need to solve.

2. Tempt Children to Comment

We can also tempt children to comment on absurdities and asking why things have gone wrong or different. For example, playing their favourite movie with a different language, preparing a special snack box for school, putting a birthday cake out without announcement, etc. When they are aware of these differences and comment on or ask about them spontaneously, it’s necessary to give a consequence that is meaningful to the children to reinforce their responses, like adding a snack of their choice to the special snack box, and having a bigger slice of the birthday cake.

3. Create Novelty in Various Situations

Another way to facilitate spontaneous language is to create novelty in various situations. Placing a new book in his school bag, downloading a new game on his electronic devices, putting a new snack in the snack box may elicit curiosity in children and tempt them to comment or ask questions.

4. Give an Unexpected Response

Beside manipulating the environment, when a child makes a request, ask for assistance or ask us a question, we can try giving an unexpected response to them, or playing “dumb” to tempt them to make a further response. For example, we can deliberately get a wrong item after their requests, do a wrong action after they ask for help, or answer a question in a fun or silly way, like using a different voice or giving a wrong and funny answer.

5. Let the Child to Explore and Lead the Activity

Lastly, play is essential to increase spontaneous language. Unlike teaching play skills, real play should involve letting the child to explore and to lead the activity. When appropriate, parent can join in and model comments, initiate dialogues, and encourage children to do the same and reward them with more exciting and fun ways of playing.


Information provided by:

Catherine Tam
(Autism Partnership Behavioral Consultant)
Catherine Tam
Ms. Catherine Tam holds a Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She joined Autism Partnership in 2005 and began working as a Program Specialist. She has extensive experience with children and teenagers with autism in one-on-one and group settings.She is now responsible for providing individual ABA therapy and counseling to teenagers and young adults with ASD, supervising individual cases in Hong Kong, and providing professional training and consultation to families and agencies in Mainland China and overseas countries. She also produces ABA training videos and articles in the APSPARKS website for public education.

In the past 15 years, she provided services to over 80 families, schools and organizations including 13,000 consultation hours and 6,000 therapy hours.

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