Approximately 50% of ASD children do not develop functional speech. Picture exchange systems have been developed that are effective in aiding communication. Using this approach the child learns to associate a particular request with a specific picture. For example, pointing at or handing over an image of a cup will indicate that the child requires a drink. A current drawback to picture systems is that they lack the ability to instigate direct questions. Questioning is a critical way for the child to socially engage others and to learn.
There is a typical acquisition pattern of questioning development that is found in neuro-typical children. This sequence is from (1) what, (2) where, (3) who, (4) why and (5) when. Researchers conducted a small study of three ASD children who successfully learnt to appropriately verbalise “What’s that?” when presented with toys hidden in a cloth bag.
The researchers used an image of a child pointing inquisitively on a card to act as the question. Using repetitive training with supportive verbal prompting (What’s that?) the children quickly mastered the use of the picture prompt. They were then able to transition from the picture to verbal prompting with the child eventually discontinuing the use of the picture for the questioning task.
The bottom line
If your ASD child is using a picture exchange system then work with the therapist to include questioning pictures.
Cheryl Ostryn, & Pamela S Wolfe. (2011). Teaching children with autism to ask “what’s that?” using a picture communication with vocal results. Infants and Young Children, 24(2), 174-192. doi:10.1097/IYC.0b013e31820d95ff