Breaking down the communication barrier for children with autism

July 1, 2013

Murdoch researchers are trialling a new technique to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) communicate.

Researcher Cherie Chan is seeking participants for her study.

Doctorate in Psychology candidate Cherie Chan is exploring the influence iconic gesture has on communication and speech.

"Many pre-school children with ASD only have limited and sometimes inappropriate forms of communication such as crying and screaming," Ms Chan said.

"Not only is this stressful for this child, but it’s stressful for the family too and can make everyday social situations very challenging."

After an initial assessment, study participants attend teaching sessions twice a week for eight weeks at Murdoch University’s School of Psychology and Exercise Science at the South Street campus.

Children are taught words using a gesture method (a video of an adult demonstrating gestures with words) and a picture method (using pictures to point to or give to others).

"Sign languages, such as Auslan or Makaton, can be taught to children with autism, but these movements aren’t easily understood by the wider community who have not learnt those languages," Ms Chan said.

"By teaching children simple gestures and hand movements which are universally understood, I hope to ease some of the frustration children with autism experience when trying to communicate."

It's expected that these techniques will encourage children with autism to use their hands and arms to communicate with a wider audience, which in turn could pave the way for the development of speech.

"Children with autism are often the hardest to teach functional communication skills, so if this technique works, it’s likely to work for any child with early communication problems," she said.

Ms Chan is currently looking for more children, aged between 3 and 5 years, to take part in the study. The children must be experiencing a delay in verbal and non-verbal communication skills, have English as a first language, and have no intensive prior sign language or training using picture exchange methods.

Parking and transport costs will be reimbursed.

The research has been approved by the Human Ethics Committee at Murdoch University and is being supervised by Associate Professor David Leach and Dr Bethanie Gouldthorp. For more information, contact Cherie Chan on 0433 355 924 or

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