How To Increase Language Skills In Autism With A Shoebox

Teach the Core Word ‘EAT’ with a Shoebox

Your student with autism picks up the toy and sets it back down again. Maybe he lines them up or maybe she tries to roll them. Then they ignore them entirely. We know that developing children’s play skills is vital for expanding cognitive skills and communication growth. So what is an SLP to do?  Try these shoebox play and file folder activity tips for teaching the core vocabulary word ‘EAT!’

picture of a boy ready to eat on a shoebox

How to develop skills for shoebox play

With neurotypical children, the goal of therapy is to develop as many of the missing skills as possible. Then we work on expanding the skills upward towards a higher chronological age level.

A different viewpoint can be more helpful for kids on the autism spectrum. It can be useful to develop therapy goals by advancing one functional skill as broadly as possible. Then a new, higher-level skill can be added.

Kids with autism need to develop a deep understanding of a skill or idea to help them generalize. Use lots of different pictures, photos, and activities! Work on using the skill functionally in many different contexts to help them generalize skills.

Get started by choosing a basic set of core vocabulary words and determine the symbol level to use. Then teach the core words and bring the vocabulary into basic sentence structure. The photos below can help you see a possible therapy plan.

Plan activities that add some pragmatics, like requesting, commenting, and ‘no,’ to build in functional communicative uses. Generalizing skills to real-life situations needs to be built into your therapy plan. Try developing your therapy goals by advancing one functional skill as broadly as possible. For example, after choosing your core words, think about how many different language skills can be taught using those words during the year.

Play skills, literacy skills, and communication go hand in hand.

Teach literacy and play skills using the same words. This gives your student the visual equivalent of word association skills. Building word knowledge and use, before adding a slightly expanded skill, helps kids with autism tie all of the pieces together.  Language file folder activities and shoebox play are two great methods to build these skills!

It doesn’t have to be a shoebox. But doesn’t ‘shoebox play’ sound better than ‘box play’? Autism speech therapy

This way, you build your student’s play and communicative skills together. They go hand in hand.

Adding to previously learned skills helps maintain what your student already learned. Expand skills in a way that only adds one new piece at a time. This makes learning more achievable and successful.

Would you want to go straight to the final in your most demanding class or learn each step a little at a time? Working in little chunks makes learning less intimidating and frustrating.

Try basing as many of your therapy goals as possible around a functional core word.  The core verb ‘eat’ is a fun way to start.

Start with a set of toys and a nice sturdy box to visually show how to play.  Shoeboxes are great, but any sturdy box can do!

Assess understanding of symbol levels: Core Word ‘Eat’


You also have to determine the symbol level the student understands. If your student with autism has limited communication skills, multiple needs, and is not responding to standard symbols, try this out. Maybe you need to use a different type or size of symbols for comprehension.

Check the  symbol level with students who can follow the direction, “Match.”

This photo shows a way to use a ravioli plastic and play food in a simple matching activity. The symbols are at varying levels, from cut out photos or TOBIs, (True Object Based Icons that show the object’s shape) to photos, and then symbols.

Matching tasks can help determine the symbol level.

Students are likely to choose the most meaningful symbol for matching.

To teach the core word 'eat,' students need to understand the food symbols first.

In this example, the student matched the play fruit to the TOBIs, so that is the type of communication symbol to use.

Another matching activity to try out is to have the student match the toy fruits to the real versions.

Toys are easier to use in play activities, but students need to understand that the plastic banana represents a real banana for the concept of ‘eat’ to be developed.

A student who can quickly match the fruit symbols is ready to begin working on the core word 'eat.'

Notice that this student correctly matched the fruits to the icons, including matching the purple grape toy to the green grape icon rather than the purple grape TOBI.

This shows a higher level of symbolism than in the last example. If this student understood the direction, “Match.” and this result is typical, it seems that the student is not yet at a symbolic level.

A student with no matching skills for labels is not likely to be ready to learn the core word 'eat.'

Assessing if the student uses actual objects correctly and working on developing a symbolic communication system for basic desires may be the way to go at this point in time.

Students who don’t comprehend picture symbol systems may benefit from using an object system. For example, use a spoon to request cereal.

Shoebox Play: Core Word ‘Eat’

In this picture, a shoebox has been decorated with a hungry child. He has a huge mouth cut open to place foods inside and feed him.

Model the language by pointing to the visual as you say the words. You will point to the ‘what’ at the end of the sentence first, but that is what we are asking them to tell us! Aligning the choices nearby shows that visually as well.

Be sure to point at the symbols as you say them. This is so important for helping your student connect the word to the symbol! It’s how you model visual language.

It doesn’t matter whether they are paper symbols or symbols on an AAC device, you need to model the language. This is a vital teaching method for students using AAC. Seeing the symbols as the word is said helps students understand the words and use the symbols.

Build Expressive Skills with Core Word ‘Eat’

Teach your students with autism to point at each symbol in order as you say the sentence. This will start building expressive language skills.

To prevent grabbing, hide the toys or keep them out of reach but make the symbols available! Use the symbol level and array size that seems to be appropriate for your student.  Students can request the food by pointing at or exchanging the symbol

This strategy helps build joint attention. Your students should be looking where they are pointing.  You say the word so they are hearing the word said verbally while they point to the symbol. This helps them learn to connect the oral word with the symbol.

Comprehension Check

Occasionally make sure to tell the student, “Take it.” and offer them an array of food toys after reading the sentence aloud.  This discrimination check helps you make sure that the student is still comprehending the symbol.

After the students have requested the food to ‘feed’ the boy, you might want to try handing them the bag with a few choices in it and say, “Take it.” or “Okay.” This is a discrimination check that lets you see if the student is asking for the one that was wanted. Most of the time you can just hand over the requested food.

If they correctly discriminate the symbol, they will take the food toy that matches the symbol they used to finish the sentence.

Develop Commenting and Narrative Skills with the Core Wore Word ‘Eat’

Right after feeding the shoebox kid, your student now formulates a sentence to tell what the kid ate. Notice that this fulfills a different communicative function!

Here’s the same activity at a different symbol level. Notice it is no longer requesting? Now the student is commenting on what the boy will be doing.

Instead of filling in the last food as a way of requesting what to feed the toy, the student is now using a short sentence to comment on what was eaten. It is the beginning of narrative skills.

When your students understand and produce basic sentences around the core word ‘eat’, don’t be too quick to move on only to a new core word. Think about how else this skill can be used in a different context to deepen word knowledge.

When students have learned the core word eat in shobox play, start moving to play with paper instead of objects.

In this photo, you see an activity that works on the core word ‘eat’ in a different communicative context- learning that sometimes we don’t or can’t eat even if we want to. This reinforces and gives continued practice to the core word ‘eat’ even if other activities in the session are introducing a new core word.

Developing Symbolic Play in 2D

As students become more skilled at using 3D objects in play, start fading the shoebox if the student has the motor skills to manipulate toys without the stability the box provides.

Placing a sandwich baggie behind the cut out hole for the mouth expands play skills toward pretend play.

As you move on to teaching new core words, it is important to continue to review and expand the previously learned skill sets. Maybe the student enjoys this familiar play activity now and might request it for a work break.

Maybe it is time to expand the activity to a higher symbolic level with a 2D version of the concepts. When a student is able to enjoy and participate in paper play activities, adapted books are great materials to use in therapy!

Add in adapted books to expand language and literacy skills for your speech therapy students with autism.

Combine books and play in therapy: ‘Eat’

Reading a book and then playing an associated activity is a great technique for reinforcing the language and plot of the story. This photo shows the cover of a simple adapted book that starts students using the core word ‘eat’ in sentences to communicate about varied foods.

It is a good idea to use your student's favorites in speech therapy to increase engagement.

Notice that initially, the symbol for ‘eat’ is in a field of 3 with familiar non-food symbols to help the student discriminate easily. Errorless learning is the best way to go! Helping your students make sentences to share information about their favorites is a great way to keep their attention and build functional skills.

Shoebox Play Idea Kit

Please send me the Shoebox Play Idea Kit!

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Welcome to LLL! An email with the link is on its way to your inbox. Then be sure to open your monthly newsletter to get the FREE page password. Both the password and the freebies change monthly. Enjoy your freebies! Linda@LooksLikeLanguage

Increase Difficulty in Small Steps

When your student has learned a skill, build it by applying it to new activities. Slowly add in additional steps to expand that skill. This photo shows an additional verb symbol being added in place of one of the object symbols.

Try slowly increasing the difficulty level for your students with autism who need a lot of repetition.

Moving the symbols around helps the student keep scanning, but we now know that competent communicators using an AAC device express themselves more fluidly by using the location of the symbol on the device rather than always scanning the page.

Now the adapted book has ‘eat’ as a choice along with 2 other verbs. One looks similar to ‘eat’ and the other is different in appearance, making discrimination easier than using 3 very similar action symbols.

The adapted book symbols choices started with only one verb and slowly increased the difficulty level until there is a similar action as a choice.

Many students don’t need this level of discrete steps to make progress, but if you have a student who is becoming frustrated you may need to build skills in incremental steps such as these.

I was so excited to be featured on The Speechie Show! This post gives you some more ideas about the shoebox play I discussed on the show.

If you missed it, you can see me live here!

If you are looking for more play ideas, click here for car play and here for playground ideas.

Many thanks to Barbara Bloomfield and Ron Larsen, who inspired me to explore how to develop language and play skills using visual teaching and shoeboxes.

Ron Larsen’s Shoebox Tasks

University of North Carolina’s TEACCH Program

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    • Hi! I’ve taken your suggestion and have made a free download with some of the visuals in this post. Enjoy! Linda

  • Hi
    I really like the idea and would love to use it in therapy with my kids but sadly the link for the freebie isn’t working 🙁

    • I am so sorry! Thanks much for letting me know. I think I have the link fixed now, so please try again! Enjoy- Linda


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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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