How do I help a child with autism spectrum disorder learn words?

When you show your friends a picture on your phone or point to a drink on a menu to a restaurant server, you are sharing your focus of attention with other people. ‘Joint attention’ is when two or more people are able to focus their attention on the same thing, like a picture or an item on a menu. Children develop joint attention in their first year of life, and this milestone is key to learning words.

A caregiver may point to a bag of cookies and ask a child ‘Do you want a cookie?’ If the child understands the caregiver’s focus of attention (the cookies), she can use the caregiver’s attention as a clue to the meaning of the word ‘cookie’.

Some children however have a harder time reaching this milestone, like those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are scientific studies that show that developing an ASD child’s joint attention has a cascading positive effect on language development, such as word learning and conversation length.

One way to develop joint attention at home is to coordinate attention in a fun activity. For example, you can hide an interesting toy in the room (like a bottle of bubbles) and encourage the child to find it. Their only clue is your pointing or looking toward the object! Then you can play with the toy together as a reward.The quantity and quality of time spent interacting in each language are the most important. The more of one of her languages a bilingual child hears, the faster she will be at understanding words and learning new ones. The best way to foster a bilingual child’s vocabulary is to provide her with meaningful interactions with fruit, or language!

Strengthening the foundations of language is a great shortcut to improving many aspects of language all at once!

The scientific sources of our comics:

Hurtado, N., Grüter, T., Marchman, V. A., & Fernald, A. (2014). Relative language exposure, processing efficiency and vocabulary in Spanish–English bilingual toddler. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 17(1), 189–202.

Marchman, V. A., Fernald, A., & Hurtado, N. (2010). How vocabulary size in two languages relates to efficiency in spoken word recognition by young Spanish-English bilinguals. Journal of Child Language, 37(4), 817–840.

Pearson, B. Z., Fernández, S. C., Lewedeg, V., & Oller, D. K. (1997). The relation of input factors to lexical learning by bilingual infants. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18(1), 41–58.

Tsui, R. K.-Y., Gonzalez-Barrero, A. M., Schott, E., & Byers-Heinlein, K. (2022). Are translation equivalents special? Evidence from simulations and empirical data from bilingual infants. Cognition, 225, 105084.