Connect, Communicate, Grow

A Workshop on Autism with Autism International Director Sean Fitzgerald
Essential tools to help you boost your child's interaction, affection and communication.

Developing Language: Autism Language Hotspots

“My child was non-verbal and he learned to speak over 35 words in less than 4 months.”
Karen G, Malta, mother of Ivan, 4

Mum and son in a Son-Rise program.

Language Hotspots for a child with autism can be found wherever his or her greatest motivations are. For most children language hotspots can be found when playing interactive games including tickle games, blowing bubbles, reading books, singing songs, playing chase games, offering rough and tumble, playing with car, playing ball, etc. Language hotspots will vary depending upon a child’s interactive motivations. Many children’s language hotspots also include times when they are requesting (non-verbally) snacks, drinks, the computer, etc.

First, make a list of your child’s language hotspots. These will include all of the times when your child really wants something from you. Choose one KEY WORD related to this language hotspot and label each motivating interactive activity with this KEY WORD.

Just because a child has difficulty developing expressive language does NOT mean that he does not understand much or all of what you are saying. Therefore I’d recommend regularly speaking to your child like you would to any child of a similar age. However, when your child is in a language hotspot and you are focused on developing your child’s EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE it is vital that you SIMPLIFY your own language. Highlight and be consistent with the KEY WORD when it is a language hotspot moment.

For example, if your child really likes tickle games, you would choose the word TICKLE. Now, when playing a tickle game with your child, you might playfully say, “Tickle, tickle, I’m going to tickle you, TICKLE….!”  Notice how the word tickle is highlighted and repeated within the activity. This is much more effective in helping your child say “tickle” than if you are using too many words.


It is much less effective to say something like, “I’m going to give you a tickle, I’m getting you under your arms, now I’m getting your tummy, here I come, I’m going to get you, 1, 2, 3, I got you!”  In this second example there is no key word for a child to focus on and try to repeat.

Next, when your child is highly motivated and wants you to continue the activity, PAUSE….Many children need 5, 10, or even 20 seconds or more in order to attempt the KEY WORD that you have been illustrating. If you pause during an activity when your child is highly motivated, he will do everything he can to get the next cycle of the motivating activity.

If you have been playfully highlighting a KEY WORD during the activity then he will know what word will make the activity continue. For example, “Bubbles (as you blow bubbles), here come some more bubbles (as you blow more bubbles), bubbles, bubbles….BUBBLES…PAUSE (and you wait before blowing more bubbles)……..”  Your child will now attempt to say bubbles because he is CLEAR that this is what prompts you to blow more bubbles.

Celebrate your child’s attempts to say a word. Reward your child’s attempts at language with a celebration and a rewarding action. The important thing is that your child fall in love with trying to communicate.

This goal is much easier to achieve if you are only requesting language when your child is having fun and is highly motivated and REALLY wants something from you. You can make this happen by identifying your child’s language hotspots within interactive games.

You can also use a KEY WORD when your child is wanting a “drink” or something to “eat”. Be careful not to be overly difficult when your child is wanting something like this. Don’t be too difficult during these times or you will make language attempts unattractive. If however you clearly model using a KEY WORD when your child wants something and you only occasionally pause to allow your child to attempt the word then your child is likely to enjoy the power of attempting language rather than get disheartened at the difficulty level.

Sean Fitzgerald

Many children with autism have language breakthroughs when you use KEY WORDS within LANGUAGE HOTSPOTs. It can be so exciting to help a child develop language in this way. A child can have fun during interactive activities while at the same time practicing a hugely useful skill. I’ve seen many children speak their first words when they have had several chances to try to say a KEY WORD within a motivating activity.

Some children, however, have apraxia (verbal dyspraxia) that makes it especially difficult for them to develop language even when you use these tools. If that is the case, playful persistence is vital and it can also be useful to incorporate other modes of speech therapy support (which might include speech therapy methods such as PROMPT or TALKTOOLS). In certain cases it can also be useful to incorporate other forms of augmented communication support such as PECS or RPM.

Give your child with autism an opportunity to have a language breakthrough by identifying the language hotspots in his life. And have fun building interactive attention as you simultaneously practice language development.


Connect, Communicate, Grow

Essential tools to help you boost your child's interaction, affection and communication.

A Workshop on Autism

with Sean Fitzgerald
Autism International Director

16, 17, 18 September, 2016

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Click here for more details.

24, 25 September, 2016

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Click here for more details.

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