Communication is the exchange of information between two or more people through a common system of symbols, signs, or behaviours. It is more complex than language alone as it is affected by social and cultural influences, which are often subtle and complex.


When we think of communication, the first thing that springs to mind is usually verbal communication, which refers to speaking and understanding language, either with or without aids for support. Communication also includes non-verbal communication, which refers to elements such as gesture (including signing), facial expression (including eye contact), and body language that help us communicate our message, and understand the messages that others are sending to us. Some children with ASD find it hard to interpret non-verbal communication in others. For example, they might not respond to a teacher waving them over to join in a game with the rest of the class. They might also find it difficult to use non-verbal signals to enhance their own communication. For example, they might turn their back to a peer who is talking to them.

To be an effective communicator we must use a combination of expressive language, receptive language, and pragmatic language.

Expressive and Receptive Communication

The following list represents typical communication development. Your child may benefit from speech therapy if they are having difficulty performing these skills:


By the age of 1 year, children are expected to:

  • copy facial expressions with caregivers, such as smiling when a parent smiles
  • follow your eye gaze to an item of interest
  • respond to people talking to them (e.g. by turning to them)
  • understand their name and respond to it
  • understand words such as 'no'
  • identify some common objects and known people (e.g. 'where’s Daddy?')
  • understand simple instructions accompanied by gesture (e.g. putting your hand out and saying “give it to me”)
  • use gestures (e.g. waving, shrugging, pointing) and facial expression to communicate
  • start to use 2-3 words besides ‘mama’ and ‘dada’, try to copy words and sounds after you say them.

By the age of 2 years children are expected to:

  • pull you to objects of interest (e.g. pulling a caregiver to a toy they can’t reach)
  • be able to understand a wide range of words
  • understand and respond to  simple yes/no questions and one step instructions  (eg. "push the car")
  • use a range of words, some of which may only be recognisable to familiar people
  • use 2-3 words together
  • ask basic questions (eg. "what’s that?")
  • use some action words (eg. "go") and describing words (eg. "big")

By the age of 3 years children are expected to:

  • understand some concepts and describing words (e.g. cold/hot)
  • follow 2- and 3-step instructions (e.g. "get your cup and put it on the table")
  • categorise items (e.g. by different colours or sizes)
  • understand not (e.g. "we are not going swimming today")
  • use sentences of 3-4 words or more
  • ask what and where questions
  • use words such as you and me (e.g. "will you play with me?")
  • have simple conversations and tell simple stories

By the age of 4 years children are expected to:

  • put together sentences of 4-5 words in the correct order
  • speech should be intelligible with few error sounds
  • ask who, what, where, when, and why questions
  • describe past experiences and tell stories

By the age of 5 years children are expected to:

  • follow instructions with a series of steps
  • use an extensive range of words and produce complex sentences with correct grammar most of the time
  • use and understand location words (e.g. near, under, on)
  • use reasoning and problem-solving skills to answer how and why questions
  • yell stories and talk about the present, past, and future

By the age of 6 years children are expected to:

  • understand and talk about concepts such as similarities and differences
  • communicate effectively in classroom and social situations
  • understand group instructions
  • understand conversations between peers
  • understand and use more complex grammar

Important Note:

These examples are based on typical developmental milestones, but it is important to remember that all children will develop in different ways and at different speeds. Please use this information as a guide only, and always discuss your concerns with a qualified professional who will help guide you in finding the best support for your child.

If you feel your child may benefit from assistance with the development of language skills, please contact a speech pathologist for further support and advice.

For activities that you can try at home to assist with language development, see some ideas for encouraging Verbal Communication Skills.

Click here to print

Pragmatic Communication

Many children with ASD find the social aspect of language difficult to understand and hard to learn. Pragmatic language refers to the social communication and language skills we use in our day to day interactions. It includes what we say, how we say it (both verbally and non-verbally) and how appropriate it is to the given situation.


Understanding pragmatic language involves looking at both verbal and non-verbal ways that people communicate their messages. Non-verbal pragmatic communication can include the understanding and use of eye contact, body language, facial expression and tone of voice. Verbal pragmatic communication might include the ability to express our wants and needs, thoughts and ideas, and our feelings.

Good pragmatic language is critical for successful social interaction. Children who have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal pragmatic skills also have difficulty recognising and understanding other people's communication which often leads to confusion for the child.

Because pragmatic communication can be difficult for children with Autism Spectrum disorder, they often have trouble following the rules of conversations such as turn-taking, staying on topic and showing interest in other people's conversations.

The following list will help you to identify some areas of pragmatic difficulty your child may be experiencing. You might want to consult a speech pathologist if your child is not using gesture, vocalisations, behaviour or words to:

  • look at you when they want something
  • reach or point to something that they want
  • reject or protest when they don't want something
  • greet people and/or communicate 'bye bye'
  • indicate they need help
  • show you things they are interested in (e.g. by bringing to you or pointing)
  • approach you to engage in social games such as peek-a-boo or tickling games
  • let you know they need comfort
  • tell you what they want you to do (e.g. "give ball", "push swing")
  • draw your attention to something they want you to notice (e.g. "look plane")
  • ask questions, especially what, who and where questions
  • make comments (e.g. "yukky", or "it's hot")
  • request permission (e.g. "can I have...?")
  • express feelings and opinions
  • talk about a variety of topics
  • take turns in conversation

If you feel your child may benefit from assistance with the development of pragmatic language skills, please contact a speech pathologist for further support and advice.

Important Note:

These examples are based on typical developmental milestones, but it is important to remember that all children will develop in different ways and at different speeds. Please use this information as a guide only, and always discuss your concerns with a qualified professional who will help guide you in finding the best support for your child.

For activities that you can try at home to assist with pragmatic language development, see some ideas for encouraging Pragmatic Language Development.

Click here to print

Interactive timetable

To see how many opportunities you already have in your everyday schedule for using strategies learnt in therapy, drag and drop the tiles below into the timetable and watch the hours add up!!

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday


Total hours: 0

Anxiety is a state of worry or fear about a real or perceived threatening event or situation, which often impairs physical and psychological functioning.

Articulation is how one makes sounds in words.

Auditory processing is the ability to perceive, interpret and respond to sound (auditory) stimuli. For example; a child who experiences difficulty processing auditory stimuli may be respond negatively to noise that you would not typically expect to bother someone, such as a vacuum cleaner. Alternatively, a child may have a decreased awareness of auditory stimuli and may not respond when their name is called.

A baseline is a measurement taken at one point in time against which future scores will be compared to measure progress. For example, before speech therapy begins, a therapist might measure how many objects a child can name. They might then measure this again one month, two months and three months after therapy has started to see how much progress the child has made.

Body awareness is the ability to recognise different parts of your own body, and their relative position.

Cognition refers to the mental process of acquiring knowledge.

A child’s developmental age will indicate where a child is socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually on their path of development, as compared to typical behaviors and characteristics of that age.

Early intervention means doing something, or intervening, as early as possible to work on your child’s development and support needs.

Explicit teaching involves setting aside a block of time to work on a specific skill or task.

Expressive language is how one expresses their needs, wants, thoughts, and feelings.

Fine motor skills refer to the use of small muscle of the hands and fingers that allow us to manipulate and control objects and materials. This includes tasks that involve grasping (for example using a crayon or pencil), manipulating objects (using scissors) or activities that require hand-eye coordination (like threading, writing, doing up buttons and zips).

Gross motor skills refer to the use of the large muscle groups of the body that enable us to maintain an upright posture and coordinate the two sides of the body. Gross motor skills allow us to run, skip, climb and jump.

Gustatory processing is the ability to perceive, interpret, and respond to taste (gustatory) information. For example; a child who has difficulty processing taste information may have a self-limited diet, alternatively, they may crave strong flavours excessively such as spicy or sour.

A joint therapy session is when there are two or more therapists working with your child at the same time. This is generally two therapists from different disciplines.

Key word sign is the use of manual signs and natural gesture to support communication.  Key word sign is used to encourage and support language development in children with communication difficulties.

A low registering child does not register sensations at a typical level and does not seek out sensory stimulation. For example, a child that does not register auditory input at a typical level, may not notice when their name is being called.

Motor planning is the ability of the brain to plan and organise an action before it is carried out.

A multidisciplinary team includes members from different healthcare professions with specialised skills and expertise. The members collaborate together to make treatment recommendations for your child.

Non-verbal communication refers to elements of communication such as gesture, facial expression, and body language.

Olfactory processing is the ability to perceive, interpret, and respond to smell (olfactory) information. For example; a child presenting with an olfactory processing issue may smell objects excessively, alternatively, they may be over sensitive to smell information and actively avoid it.

Opportunistic teaching is using everyday ‘opportunities’ or activities to teach and practice the skills outlined in your child’s therapy plan.

Percentile rank is another way of explaining where your child’s score sits in comparison to other children their age. For example, if your child receives a standard score of 85 which is at the 16th percentile, this means that your child’s score was better than or equal to the score of 16% of other children his or her age. Another way of looking at it is that if 100 children completed this test and you lined them up from the person with the lowest score to the person with the highest score, your child would be standing in position 16.

Pragmatic language refers to the social use of language and includes the ability to understand verbal (tone of voice) and non-verbal cues (eye gaze, body language, facial expression)  as well as the social rules of language (turn taking, staying on topic, showing interest in others’ conversation).

Proprioception is the ability to understand where your body is in space. The receptors for this system are located in the muscles and joints of the body. For example; a child who experiences difficulty with the processing of proprioceptive information may have a decreased perception of pain, or seek movement excessively and appear to always be ‘on the go’.

Receptive language is how well one understands language, this includes information that is given verbally or in written form.

Self-care skills can also be referred to as ‘independence skills’. This include skills such as dressing, toileting, bathing, eating, and sleeping.

A sensory avoiding child is one who actively avoids sensory stimuli. For example a child who is sensitive to tactile (touch) information may not be able to wear certain clothing types such as wool.

Sensory processing is the way in which the brain receives, organises and responds to sensory information for everyday use. It also includes our ability to plan our actions and movements.

A child who is a sensory seeker does not register sensations at a typical level so may seek out sensory stimulation with increased frequency and intensity. For example a child who does not register taste information at a typical level may seek out spicy, salty, or very sweet foods.

A sensory sensitive child is easily overwhelmed by small amounts of sensory input. For example: a child with a sensitivity to auditory input may notice sounds that others do not register.

Sequencing is the ability to follow a set of steps within a task.

Skill generalisation is the ability to take a skill learned in one environment and successfully transfer it to another. For example a child first learns to use the toilet at home and then is able to use the toilet at kindergarten.

Social skills enable us to interact with people within our world and understand social rules. For a child, this begins with skills such as turn-taking, saying hello, and waiting.

Spatial awareness is the ability to perceive the position of your body in space.

A standardised assessment is a tool that has been designed to determine a child’s developmental level when compared to other children of the same age. Standardised assessments give a clear score that can be used as a baseline for therapy.

Tactile processing is the ability to receive, interpret, and respond to touch (tactile) information. For example; a child who has difficulty processing tactile information may not tolerate the feel of certain fabrics on their skin. Alternatively, they may not notice touch in the way they would be expected to.

The team around your child is anyone who plays an important role in your child’s development. Starting with the parents/carers, this may also include; therapists, teacher, respite worker, siblings, grandparents etc. The ‘team’ will vary depending on the child’s needs.

Verbal communication refers to speaking, either with or without aids for support.

The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and is responsible for our balance, understanding of motion, and spatial awareness. For example; a child who experiences vestibular processing issues may become distressed when their feet leave the ground, alternatively, they may crave vestibular input and spin or rock excessively.

Visual perception is the ability to understand, interpret and remember what one sees and respond accordingly.

Visual processing is the ability to perceive, interpret, and respond to visual stimuli. For example; a child who has difficulty processing visual information may be easily distracted by visual stimuli within their environment or become focused on a certain part of an object such as watching the wheels of a toy truck spin.