Why talking to very young children with ASD matters

Jul 22, 2020 | Autism, Learning, Support

A new study [1] has identified that very young children (under two) who hear more words and have back and forth conversations with their parent tend to have better language skills at the age two.

While it has been well documented that talking to young children makes a huge difference to their language development, the connection with very young children with ASD is only recent. This is mainly due to the age in which children are diagnosed, around the age of four years old [2]. The new study included children whose older siblings had a diagnosis of ASD, placing them at higher risk for a diagnosis themselves. This study also included some children that were not in a higher risk category for ASD. Each of the children wore a recording device for two days at the ages of 9 and 15 months. The devices recorded:

  • The number of words the infant heard during the day
  • The number of opportunities the infant had for “conversational turns”- moments when their parents responded to their vocalisations, or their parent said something and the infant vocalised back.

Each child’s language skills were tested at two years of age. The researchers were looking for connections between the language they were exposed to when they were infants and their later language skills. The researchers found that:

  • Children who heard more words and participated in more conversations early on had better language skills when they were two years old – this was true for all the children in the study (children with and without ASD)
  • They also noticed that while parents of the children without ASD were having more back-and-forth “conversations” with their child by the time they were 15 months old, parents of children with ASD were having fewer conversations at 15 months.
Why the difference in conversations with children with and without autism?

When we engage in conversations, we like someone to respond to us, which in turn encourages us to respond more often, creating more opportunities for back and forth conversations. Typically developing children begin to respond with recognisable sounds and words at around 15 months, whereas children with ASD often have delayed speech, this meant that parents were not getting the same feedback from their child, so it could lead to fewer opportunities to respond to conversations. [3]

Encouraging conversations

Encouraging conversations early on is the key to helping your child develop communication skills. A conversation happens any time you and your child exchange messages back-and-forth. Your child’s message could be a word or short sentence, but it could also be a sound, gesture, body movement, facial expression, or even a quick glance in your direction.

Children with ASD often have difficulty with back-and-forth messages. Sometimes their messages are subtle and easy to miss, and they might not direct them right to you. They may not understand that they need to get your attention and look at you when they send messages. They might not know how to send messages for a variety of reasons (such as to ask for something they want, to show you something they’re interested in, or to tell you they don’t like something).

How can you support your child?

With support young children with ASD can learn to take turns in back and forth conversations, even if they are not using words yet. The Hanen Centre suggests the following tips to develop back and forth conversations.

  • Observe your child – watch your child carefully. Observe what he’s looking at and touching, and what actions he’s doing.
  • Follow your child’s lead – once you know what interests your child, join in with him. Play with him and talk about whatever catches his interest, avoid the temptation to change the focus. When you follow your child’s lead they are more motivated to continue the interaction.
  • Wait for your child to send you a message – once you have joined in with your child, pause and wait for him to send you a message. Stop what you are doing and look at him as if you expect him to do or say something. Once he does something or makes a sound, then you send a message back.
  • Respond to your child – your response should follow from your child’s message. If he shows you a toy car, make a short comment about it (e.g. “Wow! That car is fast!”). If he looks up at you because he is surprised that something crashed to the floor, you could say “Uh oh! Boom!”. If he gives you a toy because he needs help, you can say something that matches his message, putting it into words (e.g. “Let’s fix it”). Putting your child’s message into words with these types of short comments gives him the language that describes his interests, and it also lets him know you understand his message and want to keep the conversation going. After you respond, look at him and wait again to see if he sends another message.

Sometimes children need extra help, if this is your child please contact us.


1. Swanson, M. R., Donovan, K., Paterson, S., Wolff, J. J., Parish‐Morris, J., Meera, S. S., Watson, L. R., Estes, A. M., Marrus, N., Elison, J. T., Shen, M. D., McNeilly, H. B., MacIntyre, L., Zwaigenbaum, L., St. John, T., Botteron, K., Dager, S., Pivenm J., IBIS Network. (2019). Early language exposure supports later language skills in infants with and without autism. Autism Research,12(12):1784-1795.
2. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (n.d.). Retrieved online (March 11, 2020) at https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.
3. Warlaumont, A. S., Richards, J. A., Gilkerson, J., & Kimbrough Oller, D. (2014). A social feedback loop for speech development and its reduction in autism. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1314–1324.
Article inspired from Lauren Lowery- Hanen speech and language Pathologist