Hook ‘em in… and build language! Strategies for engaging autistic students

We are often lucky enough to work with some amazing autistic people. Their unique strengths and interests provide us with both challenges and rewards. The challenges make us think outside the box and work harder. The rewards make us sing and dance and cheer!
 
One thing we know for sure is that we should recognize their strengths and interests… this is how we can hook them in, engage and interact with them. When we do that, amazing opportunities to build language and meaningful communication can occur.
 
Check out my video below for some quick tips to get started.
 

Balance the amount of effort required

Sometimes engagement happens when we get the balance right; when the amount of effort required to communicate is in check with the payoff and reward. No one wants to do something that is too hard or too effortful, especially if there is no reward. The opposite is true too. If something is too easy then one can get easily bored and switch off — engagement lost! So check your planned activity. Have you got the right balance so that the student has the best chance for success and engagement? Do you need to increase or decrease the task requirements?

Create real reasons to communicate

My main goal when I am engaging with autistic students is not to make them look at me, nor make them follow a set of instructions or “test” what they know. Instead, I am looking to create REAL reasons to communicate. I am looking for opportunities to show them how to use words on their AAC system (aka modeling) or use their voice to communicate something interesting and fun.
 
So today I am sharing a collection of my favorite tricks and activities to hook your students in! I will also list some example core words for each activity, just to give you a few ideas and starting points for modeling words on an AAC system.

Embrace mistakes

Some of my best ideas come from activities that went wrong. And some came from a clever and innovative student who decided to do things in a new way. Embrace the mistakes and the changes to your plan. Follow the lead of the person — their way might be WAY more fun anyway!

Steal these ideas!

 
Dressing up and selfies
kids playing dress up All you need is silly hats, feather boas, crazy glasses and mustaches to try on! Sit in front of a mirror and take selfie photos as you go. Core Words
  • I want that
  • put it on
  • take it off
  • looks good/bad/silly/funny
  • go (to signal taking photo)
  • I do it
  • not that
  • get (something) different
  • look in there (mirror), look at that (photo)
  • help
Dressing up and selfies – the “high tech way”
boy with pirate outfit on make me a pirate phone app

Make Me Santa

These apps are sort of the “high tech way” to dress up and take selfies - especially for individuals that might struggle with the sensory overload of actually putting on silly hats and crazy glasses.

Core Words
The same core words can be used as above.
  • I want that
  • put it on
  • take it off
  • looks good/bad/silly/funny
  • go (to signal taking photo)
  • I do it
  • not that
  • get (something) different
  • look in there (mirror), look at that (photo)
  • help
Puppet Pals concerts
puppet pals app screenshot Use the incredibly fun iPad App Puppet Pals to create concerts. Students can engage by making fun choices from their high interest fringe vocabulary, eg. WHO will sing in the concert? WHERE will the concert happen? WHAT song will they sing?  Core Words
  • I want that
  • like
  • not like
  • I like that
  • fun, good/bad, go (to start record)
  • put on (turn on music)
  • play
  • watch it
  • come and see (to invite others)
Toca Boca Kitchen Monsters
toca boca kitchen monsters app screenshot While all Toca Boca Apps are kinda fun and engaging, Toca Kitchen Monsters is always a favorite. Make food and feed it to the funny monsters! Core Words
  • I want that
  • I want to eat
  • get that
  • put in here
  • give some
  • he likes it/doesn't like it
  • too much
  • make more
  • give more
YouTube screenshots
funny cat video on youtube Do you have a person with a special interest in something? Why not use that to engage them? Search YouTube for their favorite thing. Watch a small section of it, pausing regularly and taking screenshots. Use these photos to talk about what you can see. You can even make a book of all the photos in Pictello. Core Words
  • I want that
  • I like that
  • not that
  • find it
  • stop (when pausing video)
  • I do it (when taking photo)
  • go (start video)

Other core words could be modeled depending on the photos taken.

Hide & Seek your favorite things
boy with his favorite frog toy This one is for the student who visits with a favorite thing in their hand. Rather than taking the thing from their hand, play a game of hide and seek with it. You can even take some fun photos, which you can use to make a Pictello story with! Core Words
  • where?
  • here it is
  • there it is
  • I do it
  • stop it
  • not there
  • in/on/under
  • find it
  • open that
  • look/look for it
Emoji balls
emoji images on ping pong balls Draw emoji faces on ping pong balls and throw or catapult them around the room! Core Words
  • get it
  • I want more
  • do it again
  • go
  • stop
  • where did it go?
  • look/look over there
  • find it
  • not that
  • need help

There may also be a chance to model and discuss feeling words on the AAC system.

Magazines and catalogs
finger pressing button on tablet with retail catalog in background Are they interested in magazines or catalogs? Find cool pictures, yummy recipes, interesting gossip, things you want to buy. And even if they are more keen on ripping and scrunching the paper, that is fine; the activity can be putting it in the bin! Core Words
  • I want that
  • I want to get that
  • make that
  • look at more
  • I like it / I don't like it
  • see (something) different
  • put it in (bin)
  • get more
  • looks good
  • I have that
  • I see (saw) that
  • what do you like?
  • where can we get it?
Puppets
boy holding orange fish hand puppet Use puppets for some fun activities. Puppets can do actions like: hug, jump, kiss, bite, tickle. Puppets can also EAT (plastic food is best!) Core Words
  • I want that
  • I want more
  • do it again
  • eat that
  • eat something different
  • no more
  • not that
  • stop
  • go
  • good/bad
  • all done/finished
Music
girl playing music instrument Make music, listen to music and dance to music! Students can make choices from high interest fringe words about songs, artists and instruments they want. Core Words
  • want/want more
  • not that
  • stop and go (when pausing and playing)
  • I like that
  • I can pick
  • up/down (volume)
  • on/off
  • fast/slow (tempo)
  • what is next?
  • listen to that
  • all done/finished
Photos and videos
pile of 3 photos Individuals are often intrigued by photos and videos of themselves or other close people. Look at photos and videos together and see what language you can model. You can use high interest photos and videos to create stories in Pictello too! Core Words
  • I like that
  • look at that
  • I see ___
  • not that
  • good/bad
  • she/he is ___

Other core words can be modeled depending on the photos and videos you look at, eg. photo at the park; go to park; go on swing; see bird; etc.

Toys and games
pile of colorful legos There is always a long list of fun toys and games that can used for many individuals. Each time you play, you may find new ways to play and new words to model. Here are some ideas:
  • cars / trucks
  • legos / blocks
  • Playdoh / kinetic sand
  • balloons
  • bouncy balls
  • wind up toys
  • spinning tops
  • puzzles
  • Mr. Potato Head
  • pretend shopping and tea parties
Core Words
  • I want ___
  • want more
  • I like that
  • not that
  • put in/put on
  • I do it
  • do it again
  • in there
  • over there
  • get it
  • make that
  • open it
  • help
  • need help
  • all done/finished
Books
book cover: You can't take an elephant on the bus

Some students love the interaction that comes from interesting books. Maybe it is the in the funny pictures, or a high interest topic, but building language from books is always a good idea.

Often you don’t need to read the words, but instead can tell the story from the pictures. 

My latest favorite book is You Can’t Take an Elephant on the Bus.

Core Words
  • want
  • I like it
  • read more
  • read again
  • not that
  • I see ___
  • there is a ___
  • where?
  • who?
  • what?
  • all done/finished

Again, other core words could be modeled depending on the topic of the book. For example, in You Can’t Take an Elephant on the Bus, not on; get off; too big; too tall; in there; can it? where is it? etc.

Science experiments
boy looking at science experiment Hands-on science experiments can be engaging and fun for many. Here is an example of a lesson in a school from my friend Caitriona. Core Words
  • I help
  • I do it
  • look at that
  • put it in/on
  • put in more
  • what?
  • do it again
  • go
  • it change
  • now/soon
  • big change
  • open it
  • not that

Final tips

Remember to show respect for the age of your students with autism. Always choose activities, games and books that are in-line with what other people their age would do and enjoy. 
 
Keep a list of things that are liked or not liked. Keep a box of motivating bits and pieces ready to go at any time. Try new things all the time. Hunt out cheap toys and games wherever you go. And whatever you do, hook them in, have fun and make real opportunities to communicate!
 
Note: A lot of you expressed interest on the core word posters shown in this blog. We’re thrilled to announce that our core word posters are now for sale on our brand new Zazzle store! These displays are available in English (US/UK and AU), Spanish, and French.
 
~ Amanda Hartmann
 
Amanda is a Speech-Language Pathologist with over 20 years experience working in schools and with families and as a technology consultant. All this has led to a passion for working with children and young adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. She gives lectures on Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University of Queensland and loves sharing what she knows about AAC and literacy!

 

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Comments on
"Hook ‘em in… and build language! Strategies for engaging autistic students"

Kellie Wedig Meixner's picture

Love the big poster! How did you do that?

Hannah Munoz's picture

Same comment here: I would love to be able to purchase that poster!

Koreilly's picture

Where can I get the core word poster?!?! Is there a place to access more resources such as the poster or pre-made icons? I run various AAC groups and the poster would be a wonderful addition. I love this video and the ideas posted. I'm sure I'll be adapting a lot of them to my groups. Thank you for sharing!

Koreilly's picture

Where can I get the core word poster?!?! Is there a place to access more resources such as the poster or pre-made icons? I run various AAC groups and the poster would be a wonderful addition. I love this video and the ideas posted. I'm sure I'll be adapting a lot of them to my groups. Thank you for sharing!

Pam's picture

Hello - The modeling core word boards and posters were created to share at conferences this year. They are very popular, so we are looking at options to possibly make them available online. We do not have a supply at this time but please subscribe to our Newsletter so you can be among the first to be updated: http://www.assistiveware.com/newsletter

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