Do you notice that your conversations with your child are often led by you, with you asking questions and your child answering them? If this is the case, your child might struggle with asking questions. One of the most prevailing difficulties for children with autism is problems with initiating social interactions and asking questions. Children with autism ask fewer questions, and their questions serve fewer functions.
However, the skill of asking questions is crucial to help your child learn from their environment, since they can fill the gaps in their knowledge through these questions. With deficits in question-asking, your child might have reduced opportunities for learning compared to their peers. Difficulties in initiating question-asking is associated with a host of negative long-term outcomes, from deficient adaptive skills to poorer school functioning (Squires & Bickel, 2015). Thus, question-asking is a vital skill for your child to pick up.
Wh-questions (i.e. who, what, when, where, why, how) are the first category of questions that should be taught since they are more structured in nature. Wh-questions all start with a wh-word – with the exception of ‘how’ – and elicit clear types of answers (e.g. ‘when’ concerns time, ‘where’ concerns location), making it easier for your child to formulate a question according to their wants and needs. Before teaching your child to use wh-questions, your child should first be able to answer similar questions well. After your child knows how a wh-word is used, you can then teach your child how to use that wh-word.
To teach functional question-asking, you should contrive situations that are naturally reinforcing and contextually relevant, as opposed to teaching through rote learning. Naturally reinforcing situations refer to situations where your child’s questions are directly related to their desired item/activity. For example, asking for colour pencils for a drawing activity is naturally reinforcing, while asking for colour pencils in the absence of a drawing activity is not. There is no use for colour pencils when your child does not want to draw. Thus, contriving situations for question-asking often follows the process of withholding information/items and waiting for your child to ask the right question before giving the desired information/items. Here are some effective strategies for you to teach your child wh-questions:
1. ‘What’ questions
Place items that your child likes in an opaque bag. When you take an item out, prompt them to ask, “What’s that?”. Show your child the item and let them play with it after your child has asked the question. Make it a game by repeatedly pulling out items that your child likes, until they can spontaneously ask the question without prompts. Afterwards, slowly replace the items with non-reinforcing items that your child is not familiar with, so your child learns to ask the question when presented with a new unknown item. Finally, present new items without the bag until your child spontaneously asks the question without being prompted.
2. ‘Who’ questions
Gather some items that your child likes, and rope in some friends and family who are familiar to your child to participate in this activity. You will wait in a room with your child, and your chosen participants will take turns to knock on the door and say, “I have a present for you!”. At this moment, prompt your child to ask, “Who is it?”. When your child asks the question, open the door, give the answer, e.g. “It’s Daddy!”, and have your participant gift the present. Slowly fade off the sentence, “I have a present for you!”, such that your child can ask the question after they hear a knock on the door. You can also prepare storybooks with characters hidden in pull-out tabs and have your child ask the question before pulling the tab.
3. ‘Where’ questions
Hide items that your child needs to complete activities that they enjoy e.g. painting, and prompt them to ask, “Where is the ____?”, when they realise that those items are missing. For example, hide the paintbrushes when your child wants to paint. When your child realises that the paintbrushes are missing, prompt them to ask, “Where are the paintbrushes?”.
4. ‘How’ questions
Give your child a fun looking toy with mechanisms that they do not know how to operate. When your child struggles to play with the toy, prompt your child to ask, ‘How do I use it?’. You can also place their favourite items in a box that they do not know how to open, and prompt them to ask the question before teaching them how to open it.
5. ‘When’ questions
Tell your child that you are both going to do a particular activity that your child enjoys, e.g. “We are going to the zoo.”, “We will play with Lego.”, without sharing when you will do it. Prompt your child to ask, “When are we going?”. It is crucial to choose activities that do not have a regular timeslot in your child’s daily routine. For example, if you read storybooks with your child only during bedtime, telling your child, “We will read storybooks”, will not elicit motivation to ask, “When?”, as your child already knows that it will happen during bedtime.
4. ‘Why’ questions
First, do something out of the ordinary that interests your child to catch their attention. Take note that you should have a good reason for your new actions. For instance, you can place their paintbrushes (items that your child likes) on the laundry rack (an unusual location) or gather all the chairs in the house in the bathroom. Then, prompt your child to ask, “Why are you doing that?”, and give the relevant answer, e.g. “I am drying the paintbrushes” or “I am washing the chairs.”.
By taking advantage of everyday occurrences and making tweaks to the situations to motivate your child to ask questions, your child will gain more practice opportunities. Practising questions in natural contexts also helps your child to learn when it is appropriate to ask each question, and increases chances of spontaneous communication in natural settings. Through these simple strategies, you can help your child learn how to initiate question-asking and what questions to ask in which contexts!
Written by Hazel
Squires, K. E., & Bickel, A. (2015). Teaching Children with Autism to Ask Questions. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 125, 135.
Teaching Students with Autism to Ask Questions. (2017, September 28). Study.com. Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/teaching-students-with-autism-to-ask-questions.html.
Williams, G., Donley, C. R., & Keller, J. W. (2000). Teaching children with autism to ask questions about hidden objects. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 33(4), 627-630.