Using Simple Drawings to Increase Communication in Children with Autism

Every day when I’d pick my son up after behavior therapy, no matter what questions I’d ask, I’d get the same answers.

He would tell me who he played with, who his therapist was for that day, and what he ate. That was it for months.

In other words, he could repeat the details that were the same from one day to the next. But, he couldn’t recall the details that changed from day to day, such as which book the therapist read or what game they played.

My son is four and has ADHD and autism. Communication is undoubtedly an area where he struggles. In the first two years of his life, his primary form of communication was sign language. After a couple of years of speech therapy and what is called “mand training” in Applied Behavior Analysis, he can now chat away.

However, although finally intelligible, most of his speech is scripting and echolalia. In other words, repeating what he has memorized. He still struggles with conversational and creative speech.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to draw (and I am no artist) a picture on the napkin I put in his lunchbox. The first picture I drew was a snowman. When I picked him up, I hoped that I could ask him what was on his napkin, and he could tell me.

Later that day, when I arrived at the center and he came out, I asked him, “What did mommy draw on your napkin?”

Enthusiastically he replied, “Frosty!”

Tears filled my eyes. It had worked!

Now, each morning, I look up “how to draw (whatever I know he will get excited about)” on the computer and scribble my best rendition on his napkin.

Today I drew Wall-E, and when I picked him up, he ran up to me and said, “Mommy, you drew Wall-E!” The therapist said he proudly held that napkin all afternoon!

She also said every day; he is now excited to open his lunchbox. This is pretty huge because he would often be non-compliant during lunch and refuse to eat. He is now motivated TO eat because of the drawings.

Sometimes I’ve drawn pictures of food I’ve put in his lunchbox. He suffers from restrictive eating and has a very limited diet. So as an experiment, I drew an apple on his napkin. I then put an apple in his lunchbox. To my surprise, the therapist said he took a bite!

As I continue to learn more about autism,  I realize my autistic son can improve in conversational speech. I just need to be more creative in how I flip that cognitive switch inside his little growing brain.

A simple drawing on a napkin is just one small way I am willing to do just that!

If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn. – Ignacio Estrada


Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.