When communicating with others, we use two types of language skills – receptive language and expressive language. Children with autism tend to have deficits in either just expressive (e.g. Talking, naming objects, making gestures) or receptive (e.g. Following instructions, identifying objects, understanding gestures) alone or in both language skills. In order to develop the ability to communicate effectively, they would have to work on both skills – one cannot be without the other. As receptive language typically develops before expressive language, it is only natural to improve receptive language first as it will help to ease the development of expressive language (Sket et al., 2019).
What is receptive language?
Receptive language is the comprehension of language - the ability to understand and decipher non-verbal language and words. It involves taking in information, processing it accurately, and communicating effectively. Examining children’s receptive language skills allow caregivers to gauge how much they know and understand even if they are not able to verbally communicate.
Receptive language consists of:
Following instructions (i.e. "Stand up/sit down", "Come here", “Put ball on the table”)
Interpreting visual/audio cues (i.e. Peers keep toys/"Clean up" song plays - Time to keep toys, Or parent shows angry expression when child throws toys onto floor – Not nice to throw toys)
Identifying objects and pictures (i.e. Identify ball when verbally instructed, "Where’s the ball?")
Understanding concepts, like colours, size, shapes, letters, numbers (i.e. Identify red colour when verbally instructed, "Point to red")
Answering questions (i.e. “What do we bring with us when it’s raining?” – Shows umbrella)
Understanding a story
Why is receptive language so important?
Since receptive language is the input of language, we need to understand what the information that we receive means before we can transfer information "out" (expressive language). Apart from communication, tasks like playing games, taking directions, and reading, whether at home or in various settings, require several levels of understanding. Difficulties in understanding may lead to children with autism developing low self-esteem, lack of focus and interests, and behavioural issues, since they are unable to express themselves (van der Cruijsen & Boyer, 2021). Children with strong receptive language were shown to be more confident and have higher attention span as they were able to pick up key words, which aids the development of expressive language. When strong receptive language is combined with other skills (such as imitation and visual performance), the process will be a lot easier when getting children to produce speech sounds.
How can we improve receptive language?
Encourage eye contact: Before giving an instruction, wait for your child to face you or look at you. This allows them to focus on the instruction better.
Reduce distractions: Block out physical or visual obstructions such as bright lights and lower down the volume of noises in the background.
Improve imitation skills: Get them to copy an action whether with their body or an object.
Break instructions to short, simple steps: Use less words and get to the point without dragging it out. (I.e. 1. Open box. 2. Take ball. 3. Close box.)
Use physical guides: You can hold their hand and guide them in pointing when talking to them. (I.e. Guide them in pointing when instructing, “Where’s the yellow car?”)
Use visual guides: Use pictures when talking to them. (I.e. Show a picture of someone jumping when instructing, “Let’s jump!”)
Use audio guides: Enunciate key words when talking to them by varying the tone and volume for specific words. (I.e. “Point to GREEN ball!”)
Activities to improve receptive language
Reading story books allow children to practise active listening and joint attention, especially when someone is reading the story for them. Try going for books with big and obvious pictures so that they can easily identify them. Give instructions like “Let's turn the page," or “Point at the ______,” so that they can be involved in two-way interaction and perform tasks.
Incorporating describing into day-to-day routines
Although it may sound silly, consistently verbally describing what you are doing or hearing or seeing on a day-to-day basis helps children to build their familiarity with certain actions and concepts and expand their vocabulary. It can start when they wake up in the morning and you can say, “First, we shower. After that, we brush teeth.” Repetition helps to build the consistency, so once they are familiar with the routine, you can even get them to either in fill in verbally, “After we shower, we… (brush teeth)”, or through communicative devices that allow them to show “brush teeth”. Apart from routines, it can also be something as random as spotting a bird and commenting, “There’s a bird on the tree.” This helps to introduce new labels and concepts in a natural setting.
Instructional games, command phrases
Various games allow children to practise receptive language. For example, Simon Says allow them to listen for command phrases, process the information, and respond by performing the command. Moreover, simple board or card games like UNO when paired with instructions like “Let’s match the colour/number” also supports their listening and processing skills with the cards as a visual aid. Furthermore, the Mr Potato Head Toy or any other toys that require assemblance can be turned into an interactive game where you can guide them in fixing a specific part first (“Let’s fix the mouth first!”)
Nursery Rhymes/Songs/Dancing videos
If music piques their interest, singing and dancing are one of the most effective and fun ways to improve their receptive language. Songs like "Wheels on the bus", "I'm a little teapot", “If you’re happy and you know it” incorporate repeating simple words that are paired with actions that are also typically mentioned in the songs. Once they are familiar with the songs, you can also get them to fill in by pausing your singing or the music and letting them fill in a word or an action.
All in all, receptive language is vital in building the ways to successful communication for children with autism. We still have to take into account that every child has a different pace in learning and development, thus we try to create natural learning settings and opportunities which receptive language allows for. Apart from creating more opportunities for children with autism to interact with others, receptive language also allows others to see them express themselves in several ways.
Written by Alisha
Sket, G. M., Overfeld, J., Styner, M., Gilmore, J. H., Entringer, S., Wadhwa, P. D., ... & Buss, C. (2019). Neonatal white matter maturation is associated with infant language development. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 434. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00434
van der Cruijsen, R., & Boyer, B. E. (2021). Explicit and implicit self-esteem in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 25(2), 349-360. doi: 10.1177/1362361320961006