Sharing The Love! SLP Tips For Students With Autism

Helpful Tips for Students with Autism

Did you see my tips for students with autism on Instagram? In case you didn’t,  I thought I would share a little more information about each tip here! If you don’t yet follow me on IG, just search @lookslikelanguage, to get lots of practical tips for speech-language therapy. Easy! See you there!

Autism tips for SLPs

This week’s tips have some helpful information for working with students who have limited skills. I picked these up while working with students with autism at an ABA school. I don’t really know how much background you get in college now regarding autism, but there was nothing back in the day when I went to school. NADA. 

So, everything I know has come from a combination of watching wonderful special education teachers, reading, taking many in-service courses, and practical experience.  

I thought I’d share some of the important takeaways and aha moments I had. Maybe they will be new to you and help you with a student you have. Maybe they will just remind you of what you already knew. But either way, I hope they help!

Tips & Take-Aways for SLPS

SLP Tips for Autism: When your cognitively limited students act out, look at what just happened before. Could this have become a communicative behavior?

Tips for Students with Autism: Communicative Functions

What happened just prior is called the antecedent In functional behavior analysis terms. We look at the antecedent behavior for a variety of reasons. Most important may be to figure out what triggered the inappropriate behavior. This gives us a clue as to how we might eliminate it. 


Working together as a team is always in the best interests of our students. But when we are trying to reduce or eliminate inappropriate behaviors, it is vital. SLPs have a unique viewpoint to add because of our specialty in communication. Then all the team members should agree on a treatment plan.

Incorrect behaviors need to be stopped. But if there is a communicative intent that the behavior serves, we need to replace that behavior with an appropriate way to get those needs met. By looking carefully at what was going on prior to the behavior, we can get clues as to what the communicative intent may be.

When your cognitively low students act out, look at what happens as a result. Could this have become a communicative behavior?

We also must consider what happened immediately after the behavior, called the consequence in functional behavioral analysis. If our student gets something desirable after an inappropriate behavior, that behavior may actually become the way to request the desired item. Again, the behavior needs to be corrected. But we need to help the student learn an appropriate way to communicate that need.

When an inappropriate behavior has a communicative function, teach a more appropriate way to get needs met!

Tips for Students with Autism: Improving Communication Skills

Suppose your student loves potato chips! However, he is nonverbal and has no alternative ways to request and get his needs met. One day, he has a huge craving for potato chips. He goes to the cabinet where they usually are, but it is empty. Then he frantically runs to grab his mothers’ hand and pull her to the cabinet.

However, she is busy with her other child and can’t go right away. The frantic child with autism starts acting out. As soon as the mom has finished helping her other child, she immediately goes to the grocery bags that she just brought in the house and pulls out the potato chips for her kid. She knows exactly what he wants!

The frantic child calms down now that he has the potato chips. But, at this moment that is traumatic for him, he has made a connection between that specific acting out behavior and getting potato chips. He may even begin to do that behavior again the next time he wants potato chips and is in a location where he can’t get them himself.

Did the mom do anything wrong? Absolutely not! She is taking care of her kids and doing her best to meet her nonverbal child’s needs. And by the way, this kind of connection could easily occur with a teacher or therapist, too! The point is not to lay blame. This example just shows a way that a particular behavior could come to serve a communicative function.

Our job is to look for any connections we can find between inappropriate behaviors and communicative needs. The data taken to determine these connections is called a Functional Behavioral Analysis. It is used to help the team determine how to change the environment and the student’s behaviors. And we can help by improving communication skills at the same time.

By the way, this always sounds easier on paper and in examples than it hardly ever is in real life!  Just keep working at it, readjusting your plan, until there is progress! 

Prompt an appropriate new way to communicate the student’s need while calm. Reinforce immediately and practice, practice, practice!

Tips for Students with Autism: Practice While Calm

Students never learn while they are upset! After you have a hypothesis about the communicative function, work on setting up situations to give the student as many trials as possible to practice the replacement communicative behavior while calm. Work with the team to follow the behavioral program while you are teaching the new communication skill. 


The inappropriate method of communicating did not develop overnight, and the new way won’t be learned that quickly either. Careful data can help you tell if you are moving in a positive direction and keep your motivation levels up.

Get together a set of simple party toys that appeal to different senses so you can set up a reinforcer assessment.

Tips for Students with Autism: Sensory Issues and Reinforcers

In my experience, children with autism who have extremely limited skills usually have problems with sensory integration. They will have some sensory modalities that they crave. Toys and activities that fall in this category can be great for reinforcers and for breaks.  

They also have sensory problems that inhibit them from being able to handle a variety of activities. The child who is sensitive to noises is a prime example. You might see him covering his ears when it doesn’t seem particularly loud to you. He may not even be able to function during a fire drill.  

Getting an array of sensory toys will help you determine this pretty quickly. It will also give you important information to use in planning therapy activities. Place an array of simple sensory toys in front of your student. Think in terms of the party toys that intrigue kids and are quick and easy to use. Which is he drawn to? What toys does he avoid? What does he do with the toys that he picks up? Then, think about what these toys have in common.

These sensory toys are not the ones you will be using to teach play skills. They can be used as reinforcers for downtime when the student has completed the work. But examine what your students like and look at their current level of play to help choose which is the right toy to start teaching play with!

Choose the toy the student interacted the most with to start teaching play skills.

Tips for Students with Autism: Play Skills

My students had a lot of self-stimulatory behaviors and very few to no actual play skills. They lacked the knowledge of what to do with the objects around my room. Instead, they tended to use them as an extension of their favorite stimulatory activity. But when students engage with objects or traditional toys in any way at all, they are interested. From looking at the toy or touching it briefly to actually picking it up and interacting (inappropriately) with it, it means that they are interested. 

Watch how your student with autism interacts with an array of toys. Playing, touching, and looking all show different levels of interest or familiarity.


So try starting with the toy that got the most interest to teach them how to play. It usually will match their preferred sensory modality, too. Just be sure not to start with their most preferred toy! You could be setting yourself up for problems by using something they have a long history of stimming with. 

Then, when skills are achieved with one type of toy, expand it to a similar toy!

Choose the toy the student interacted the most with to start teaching play skills.


Click here to read more about teaching play.

If you’d like a little more help, click here to check out my free Getting Started with Autism Guide!

Don’t miss out on this helpful free guide!

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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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