Using Art Projects to Work on Communication

If your child enjoys painting, drawing, or other types of art, you can use that interest as a teaching tool to work on language and communication skills. With an art project, there are lots of opportunities for your child to ask for things he or she will need to complete the project. In ABA, we refer to this as "manding," which (in a simplified definition) means requesting. This is a great way to work on language, as the child is motivated to ask you for something he or she wants. For this to work best, your child should be motivated and interested in working on whatever art project you've chosen.

To teach language/communication using art project, you'll want to do two things:

- Gather all of the materials you need for the project and put them in a container that you can hold while you work on the project.

- Find a visual model of the project (such as a photo of a completed picture). You can use this to show your child what you're going to make. I like to show a child some photos of different art projects we could make and let them choose which one they want to do.

Once you have all the supplies gathered, you're ready to start working on the project. Since you're holding all of the supplies, you can have your child start asking you for the things he or she needs. Here are some of the ways you can do this:

1. Have the child ask for specific items (paper, scissors, glue, pencils, etc.). The child can ask for these items with single words (such as saying "paper" to request the paper), phrases (such as saying, "want paper"), or sentences, ("I want paper" or "Can I have paper?"). If the child points to the one he or she wants (or tries to take it), I'll prompt him or her to say the name of the item, and then give them the item. I'll share more about what I say and how to prompt at the end of this post.

2. Asking for things by size (such as "big" or "little"). You can have your child practice size words (such as "big" and "small") by asking if they want a "big paintbrush" or "little paintbrush" or a "big paper" or a "small paper." You can show them the two paintbrushes or two pieces of paper while you label each one as "big" or "little" and prompt them to say the name of the one they want. It helps if your child has a basic familiarity with these words.

3. Asking for things by color. Art is perfect for working on colors! You can have your child ask for which color he or she wants for paper, paint, crayons, colored pencils, etc. For example, you can show your child different colors of paper and say the name of each color as you point to it: "green paper," "red paper," "yellow paper," etc. When you can tell which one your child wants, prompt him or her to say "green paper" (or whatever color).

How to Prompt

We can use prompts to help a child do something they don't already know how to do. With a prompt, we're basically either giving them the correct response or a "hint" for the correct response.

In this case, since the child is making a verbal response (saying something they want), a common way we can teach this is by using a verbal prompt. For a verbal prompt, we'll tell the child the correct answer (just say exactly what you want the child to repeat). Here's an example for an art activity:

Parent/Teacher: "What do you want?" (while holding up the scissors and glue).

Child: [points to the glue, touches the glue, tries to take the glue, or some other indication of which one he or she wants].

Parent/Teacher: "Glue" (wait for the child to repeat the word and then give the is okay to say the word again if the child doesn't repeat it the first time). I also usually get really excited when they say the word and say something like, "Glue! Okay, great asking! Here's the glue" while I'm handing the child the glue.

This is called a full verbal prompt, as I'm telling the child exactly what to say, and he or she repeats it.

However, we eventually want the child to be saying the word on his or her own, without being prompted. So, we do something called fading the prompt. We want to do this as quickly as possible, so the child doesn't become dependent on the prompt.

For example, once you've practiced "glue" a few times with the full verbal prompt, we can use a partial verbal prompt. With a partial verbal prompt, we just say part of the word. In our "glue" example, we might just say something the first part of the word, such as, "gl..." (as a "hint") and wait for the child to say the entire word. Here's the example written out:

Parent/Teacher: "What do you want?" (while holding up the scissors and glue).

Child: [points to the glue, touches the glue, tries to take the glue, or some other indication of which one he or she wants].

Parent/Teacher: "Gl..." (wait for the child to repeat the word and then give the glue). I also usually get really excited when they say the word and say something like, "Glue! Okay, great asking! Here's the glue" while I'm giving the child the glue.

This is an example with a child working on one-word requests, but you can use the same basic process to expand language to multiple-word phrases or sentences.

As a note: if your child is just learning single words, and doesn't say the whole word correctly (maybe he or she mispronounces "scissors"), but is really trying, I would go ahead and reward that by giving him or her the scissors (at first). Just make sure to say the entire word while you're giving him or her the scissors, just so they hear the entire word correctly again.

We want to make sure that we're acknowledging the child's efforts at communication to encourage him or her to keep trying. You can work on getting more of the word later, and I would absolutely recommend seeking some outside information and expertise to help with this if you're not familiar with using ABA principles to teach (as the process can be a bit complex). Here's some more information about that.

Learn More About Teaching with Prompts

Prompting and prompt fading is a very specific process, and I would encourage you to seek some additional training on using it, if you're not familiar with using ABA principles to teach. Your best option would be to work with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to be trained on how to use it. There are also a few blog posts that I would recommend about how to use prompts and prompt fading. I would encourage you to read them before working on this process with your child.

A Complete Guide For Using Prompts To Teach Individuals With Special Needs:

Procedures for Prompt Fading:

I would also recommend these books to learn more about the teaching strategies I've outlined here. Each of them is an amazing resource and I absolutely love the teaching approach! I don't particularly like the title "Overcoming Autism," as I believe that autism can be a beautiful part of who a child is and something that we can embrace with love, but the teaching strategies in the book are fantastic.

Meet Dr. Caldwell

Hi! I'm Dr. Nicole Caldwell and I've been working with students on the autism spectrum for about 12 years. My background is in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Montessori. I have a Master's degree and PhD in special education with an emphasis in autism, and I love what I do! I currently work with children with autism in their homes on social, communication, and academic skills. I specialize in:

•Teaching math to students with math difficulties or math anxiety,

•Teaching science and coding to children with autism, and

•Working on language and communication by embedding learning opportunities into your child’s favorite activities. I think of this as “play to learn.”

If you’re in the Dallas/Rockwall, Texas area and would like to learn more about working with me, please send me a message and we’ll set up a free initial consultation.

If you're outside of the Dallas/Rockwall area, I offer online instruction in middle and high school math, coding, and 3D modeling via video conferencing. Send me a message if you'd like more information or to set-up a free initial consultation (via video conferencing). Thank you!

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