Early Interaction and Activities to Develop These Skills

0 - 6 months

During these very early developmental stages, children and young people may demonstrate some of the following:


  • Up to 3 months the pupil enjoys people rather than objects. **However, this may not be the case with pupils on the autism spectrum. They may prefer objects to people.
  • Girls are known to be more interested in people/faces than boys


  • Makes intentional vocalisation/movements to gain attention
  • Stills to auditory stimulation
  • Looks around for the source of sound
  • Looks for person who is talking
  • Enjoys interactive games - tickling,
  • Pat a Cake, Round and Round the Garden
  • Reacts to: touch, light, sound/music, human voice, movement

P1 Activities should include opportunities to Respond to Sound:

  • Responding to adult’s voice
  • Responding to environmental sounds
  • Turning to sound


  • Smiles at familiar person
  • hows pleasure in response to attention
  • Starts to make sounds when alone or with people e.g. chuckles, squeals, etc.

P2 Activities should develop Early Awareness of Sounds and exploration of the environment:

  • Looking for where the sound is coming from
  • Encouraging early listening and reaching
  • Encouraging touch and holding with a variety of textures
  • Developing intentionality

Encouraging touch and holding

Pupils learn a great deal about their world through their sense of touch. Encourage the pupil to hold objects with various textures; help them if necessary, to brush them against their hands, feet and legs. Textures may include a brush/sponge, a soft woolly toy, smooth/rough materials and materials that make sounds such as a ‘space blanket’ or bubble wrap.

**Pupils with autism may have different reactions to touch (over or under sensitive or both). Some pupils may dislike touching and/or being touched and show ‘tactile defensiveness.’

Intentional communication

Communication develops as pupils learn to manipulate their environment and communicate their desires by changing their cries/noises to indicate various needs.

The cries and body movements that a pupil uses in infancy become refined and more deliberate in time, so that adults can interpret and respond accordingly. They then begin to use gestures and vocalisations to convey additional messages, within their environment. At this stage they are being more intentional in their communication.

Other Useful strategies at 0-6 months stage of development may include:
‘Intensive Interaction’ See Appendix 1
Use of Personal signifiers and Objects of Reference See Appendix 2

5 - 9 months


  • Reaches for objects
  • Grasps objects when physically able
  • Vocalises to attract attention; physically touches object or takes adult to it
  • Imitates speech sounds heard in one to one interactions and the rise and fall in pitch.
  • Waves bye-bye as part of a familiar routine
  • Starts to recognise own name and may turn in response
  • Recognises and is beginning to understand everyday contextual sounds
  • Starts to make a choice from 2 objects

Activities should develop:

  • Eye contact
  • Anticipation and shared attention
  • Imitation
  • Understanding of cause and effect
  • Use objects/symbols

Developing eye contact

By using eye contact with people we convey a lot of information. It is one of the first ways that a baby communicates with you and we gradually learn to use eye contact to convey meanings such as - “I’ve finished speaking, it’s your turn”. “I want to talk to you” etc. It is important to encourage a pupil to look at you so that they learn these messages and gather other information e.g. facial expressions, mouth shapes for sounds etc.


  • Peek-a-boo
  • Face paints
  • Looking through tubes
  • Mirrors

**Pupils with autism may find eye contact painful and actively avoid it. Never try to force eye contact, instead use the pupil’s name and encourage them to turn towards the speaker. Remember that not looking at you doesn’t mean not listening to you. Eye gaze usually improves spontaneously when the pupil feels relaxed
and confident.

Anticipation and shared attention

Pupils learn by copying. Before they can copy or imitate they need to be able to focus on activities with other people and anticipate what will happen next.

Activities to encourage anticipation and shared attention may include:

  • Peek-a-Boo
  • Tickling games
  • Nursery rhymes
    e.g. Row, row, row the boat Round and round the garden This little piggy

Activities to encourage shared attention may include:

  • Ball rolling/’press and go’ toys
  • Tower building/ring stacking
  • Car runs/marble runs
  • Bubbles
  • Taking objects out of a container and putting objects back in

N.B. shared attention may be very difficult for pupils with autism. Activities that are highly motivating for the individual will help. See Attention and Listening

**Strategies for teaching pointing:

Pointing is a social gesture. Touch-pointing means using your index finger to touch something in order to draw another person’s attention to that item. Distance pointing means using your index finger to draw another’s attention to something at a distance from you. The aim of pointing is to intentionally communicate that you want the other person to attend to what you are focusing on - either to look at the same thing or because you want to comment on it or request it. This is known as joint attention. Joint attention is fundamental to purposeful communication but it is a difficult skill for many pupils with autism to learn, so often has to be explicitly taught. Please note that because pointing is often confusing and difficult for the children it may be easier to start with PECS when teaching ‘request’.

  • Encourage use of the index finger by providing textured pictures and books, push button toys,
    computer touch-screen, ‘hula-hoops’, finger painting, sand tracing.
  • Regularly mould the pupil’s index finger to touch items he is about to receive. This is ‘request’ pointing. Use motivating objects to encourage requesting. Be very gentle.
  • Wait for the pupil to touch-point items he is about to receive. If he experiences difficulty, gently mould his hand into a touch-point.
  • Once request-pointing is established, wait for the pupil to look at you before releasing the desired item. At first you may have to wait several seconds. The aim is to develop eye-gaze as part of requesting. This is a vital step to avoid meaningless pointing in empty rooms. It helps the pupil to learn that he needs someone to communicate with.
  • To develop the next step, distance-pointing, place desirable but permissible items in sight but out of reach. Wait for the pupil to initiate pointing. Prompt if he does not point independently. Remember to wait for eye-gaze as part of the pointing gesture.
  • Respond to the pupil’s use of pointing wherever possible. Comment on or offer the items to which your attention has been directed. When teaching pointing, do this whether the ‘point’ was intentional or not. In this way the pupil learns to use pointing as a means of gaining your attention and sharing experiences.
  • If you cannot or do not want to give the pupil the object pointed at, you should still clearly indicate that you have understood the request and either teach the pupil (e.g. using first/then sequence and pictures) to see when they can have the item or how to choose an alternative. (Adapted from Flack, Harris, Jordan & Wimpory, 1996)

Developing Imitation

A pupil learns through exploration and imitation. Speech and language is learnt particularly through imitation. It is therefore important to encourage a pupil to imitate things you do. These can be large movements at first e.g. arm, leg, body movements, slowly reducing them down to facial expressions, then down to speech sounds and oral muscle movements e.g. blow, lick, suck etc.

Cause and effect skills

Cause and effect skills are required for the development of early communication skills. Pupils develop cause and effect skills when:

  • they are interested in exploring and interacting with objects
  • they understand that an object still exists when out of sight
  • they understand that an object retains the same properties and functions when it returns to view
  • they appreciate that their behaviour i.e. physical movements and vocalisations can have an effect upon their environment.

Introducing objects/symbols
For additional activities for P scales 1-3, refer to Appendix 3.

9 - 18 months


  • Starting to make a choice from two photographs, pictures, symbols
  • Starting to understand the names of some familiar objects
  • Knows familiar/unfamiliar people but not necessarily by name
  • Understands simple instructions accompanied by gesture/sign e.g. ‘give it to…’
  • Expects to be given an object he points to by looking at adult and making a sound
  • Uses about 10-20 functional words
  • Points to body parts - 2 or 3 maximum.
  • Shows interest in books and points to familiar pictures
  • Enjoys nursery rhymes / action songs. Important in shared attention plus repetition for sound awareness, rhythm and rhyme and enjoyment of language

Activities should:

  • Develop initiation and persistence in communication
  • Introduce key functional vocabulary to indicate needs
  • Develop attention and concentration
  • Develop the use of ‘formal’ communication systems

Useful systems to develop communication at 18+ months stage of development may include: Makaton signing, PECS or symbols/photos, Voice Output Communication Aids.

18 - 36 months


  • Will combine two words in speech, signs or symbols e.g. ‘daddy gone’
  • Begins to use adjective, verb and noun in two word combinations e.g. ‘big car’
  • Can indicate yes or no for need or preference e.g. pushing or turning away from the person or object, change of facial expression, vocalisation, shaking head or nodding
  • Will indicate preferences from a choice of 2-3 objects, symbols or photos e.g. eye pointing, reaching
  • Joins in with rhymes, poems and songs.
  • Raises and lowers voice in context e.g. singing softly in a song or shouting when they are angry
  • Recognises self or own name and beginning to use the terms ‘me’ and ‘mine’
  • Uses about 30-50 functional words

Strategies could include:

  • Engineering learning environments that encourage pupils to request, comment and communicate
  • Scaffolding of language and communication
  • Commenting on what a pupil is doing
  • Routines involving songs, greetings, turn taking
  • Say the pupil’s name first if it helps focus their attention, then keep instructions short, accompanied by gestures, signs, objects and appropriate facial expression/body language
  • Use an animated voice, plus simple and repetitive language to encourage them to be interested in voice. Repeat back

N.B. Important in raising awareness of other visual representations of objects, necessary for later picture/symbol users. Pointing - important development for PECS

N.B. It is important to integrate the auditory and visual learning when working with pupils especially at this stage

** This is used throughout the document and refers to puplis with autism

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Last updated: 21 October 2015

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