Autism: Communication and Behavior Links

By Linda Fielding

At this time it is believed that autism is a developmental disability with multiple causes (Batshaw & Perret, 1992). As there are no specific assessments for autism, the diagnosis of this disorder is usually based on characteristics which are exhibited by the individual (in relation to their developmental level). The most common characteristics displayed by individuals with autism may include any or all of the following: a lack of social-communicative skills, engagement in repetitive behaviors, the demand for sameness, abnormal preoccupation with specific objects, self injurious and/or aggressive behaviors, and language delays. While an individual may exhibit a combination of these characteristics, a number of authors support the idea that core underlying problems with communication are the primary disability of individuals with autism and other behavioral problems are secondary symptoms (Koegel & Koegel, 1995).

Both the expressive and receptive communication impairments exhibited by individuals with autism can be severe. About half of this population never gain useful speech (Schopler, 1978), and those children who do develop speech tend not to use their language in a communicative way (Donnellan, 1985). This inability to effectively use communication can lead to challenging behaviors. Recent literature substantiates the premise that a relationship exists between communicative intent and the function of the behavior. The function of a challenging behavior can usually be determined to be related to one or more of four specific communicative purposes: 1) to obtain attention; 2) to escape or avoid a request, activity, or person; 3) to procure an object (or tangible); and/or 4) to receive sensory feedback (Durand, 1990).

Programming practices for students with autism have also begun to reflect this linkage. Less emphasis is being placed on developing strategies to "manage" behavior while more attention is focusing on interpreting the purpose of the behavior and providing students with additional opportunities to enhance their communicative abilities. It is important to consider that no matter what the age of the individual with autism, teachers can actively plan programs (and offer parents suggestions) which will encourage communication, and perhaps, decrease the occurrence of inappropriate behaviors.

Koegel and Koegel (1995) have suggested four strategies that can be implemented throughout the school day to assist with the development of communication in individuals with autism. The remainder of this article profiles these strategies and provides illustrations of each.

1. Increase awareness of and respond to all communication attempts. In order to accomplish this, teachers must begin to interpret all student actions (and behaviors) as having communicative intent. For example, Sam (a student in your classroom) is sitting on the floor. You ask Sam to go get his coat so the class can go outside. Sam grabs his knees and begins to rock. As opposed to labeling Sam as "noncompliant", perhaps we need to consider that Sam may be telling us that he does not want to go outside today.

2. Teach students with autism that their actions have distinct consequences associated with them. No second guessing the individual! He or she must learn that communication can be used to influence the environment. Kate is moving through the lunch line in the school cafeteria. The vegetable choices for the day are green beans (which she hates) or french fries (her favorite food!). Kate selects the green beans. Instead of being prompted to again choose which vegetable she wants, Kate should be given the green beans. If she screams or pushes them away she has communicated that she does not want them and should then be given an opportunity to choose another item.

3. Provide positive supports and learning opportunities. Identify and arrange communication opportunities in natural contexts throughout the school day. Sabotage the environment! Create circumstances which stimulate communication. For example, hide Sarah's favorite drum in the closet, "forget" to pour Justin's juice at snack time, "lose" Tommy's knapsack before it's time to go home, or give Ashley the incorrect amount of change needed to purchase a soda from a vending machine.

4. Encourage interactions by providing individuals with autism the opportunity to socialize in environments with age-appropriate peers. The experience of participating in a social group is essential to developing social-communicative skills. Exposing children with autism to situations in which good communication and social skills are modeled may assist with developing more appropriate interactive behaviors. Engaging in communicative interactions helps to teach students that positive outcomes can occur through communication.

By employing these communication strategies, will all challenging behaviors in individuals with autism be eliminated? Probably not. But by increasing a student's understanding and use of communication, we can reduce his/her use of challenging behaviors to "get their message across".


Batshaw, M. L., & Perret, Y. M. (1992). Children with disabilities: A medical primer. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Donnellan, A. (Ed.). (1985). Classic readings in autism. New York: Teachers College Press.

Durand, V. M. (1990). Severe behavior problems: A functional communication training approach. New York: The Guilford Press.

Koegel, R., & Koegel, L. (1995). Teaching children with autism: Strategies for initiating positive interactions and improving learning opportunities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Schopler, E. (1978). On confusion in the diagnosis of autism. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 8, 137-161.

Reprinted with permission, Four Runner, a publication of the Severe Disabilities Technical Assistance Center (SD TAC) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Vol. 11 (7), April 1996.