Supporting Your Young Child’s Skill Development

July 15, 2022

If you are a parent of a child showing “red flags” of autism, you likely feel that precious time is being lost during the long wait time for an autism diagnostic evaluation. While it is true that early identification and treatment are essential, you are the most important teacher in your young child’s life. You may be frustrated or feel at a loss when trying to communicate and play with your child, as the signs and symptoms of autism can make these things more difficult.

There are, however, things you can do to enhance your child’s learning during this time.  Below we explore the ways parents can strengthen key skills with their young child while they wait for diagnostic clarity and treatment to begin.

Keep your child’s age and developmental stage in mind. 

The skills outlined below are typically delayed or missing in young children showing signs of autism and are likely a good place to start. It is important, however, to consider your child’s age and developmental level when deciding on which skills to focus.

The CDC Milestone Tracker can help you identify goals that are developmentally appropriate. It is important to note that individuals with autism may have some skills at, below, and/or above their age level. For example, they may be on target with vocabulary but not show developmentally appropriate play skills.

Also, the type of teaching strategies you use should be personalized that take account of their strengths, skill deficits, and preferences. Individuals with autism often require specific teaching strategies and repeated practice to improve.

Skills to Build

Joint Attention

Joint attention is the shared focus by two people on the same object.

Research shows that many individuals with autism struggle with joint attention. For example, your child may seem more isolated and “object focused” rather than looking at you to share experiences and enjoyment. While some hold the opinion that individuals with autism should not be required to make eye contact, here are some ways to promote this shared engagement:

Read more

  • Play or sit directly opposite your child to increase the likelihood of eye contact.

  • When engaged in object-based activities, if your child is not shifting their gaze, hold the item up toward your face to help them look at you.

  • Use cause and effect toys in play while using an animated voice and facial expressions.

  • During normal daily activities, provide many opportunities to shift and share focus on something interesting by pointing and providing an excited and exaggerated, “Look!” (e.g., “Oh my gosh, look at that fire truck!”)

  • Many individuals with autism are very passionate about certain topics or activities, so incorporating their preferences may help motivate them to attend and engage with you.


Imitation is the ability to copy another person’s words and actions.

It serves as a foundation for learning from you, peers, and teachers. All of us learn via imitation (e.g., watching cooking shows or watching YouTube videos on how to swing a baseball bat), and research shows that strong imitation skills correspond to better language and social outcomes . Typically, children learn to imitate very early in life and continue to learn through imitation as they grow older in many different activities and contexts. Unfortunately, one of the most salient deficits in autism is a lack of imitation skills. You can improve imitation skills by consistently providing verbal, physical and play action models during typical daily and play routines.

Read more

  • A common way to teach children with autism to imitate involves providing a model of an action while saying, “Do this” and helping the child imitate your actions. When you do this, be sure to reward your child’s attempts (even if only partially correct!) with praise or access to a favorite food or toy.

  • You can begin imitation targets with simple imitation of objects (e.g., tap blocks together, banging two spoons together), then larger body movements (jumping, waving), play actions (pushing a toy car, feeding a baby), and daily routines (splashing in the tub, patting a dog in a book). You can also include vocal imitation (words in songs, animal sounds) if your child is attempting some speech sounds.

  • Encourage imitation games and songs (songs such as If You’re Happy and You Know it).

  • Remember that children with autism often need more consistency and repetition to learn. It may be helpful to focus on a few simple imitation skills that you practice during play each day. For example, every time you play with blocks, focus on trying to have your child imitate you stack 2 blocks and bang 2 blocks together rather than many different actions.


Communication is how we let others know what we want and need as well as understand what others are trying to tell us.

Obviously, this skill is crucial to all aspects of your life. Your child may have difficulty using words to communicate, have limited social skills, or difficulty following simple directions. Unlike typically developing children, children with autism often do not learn to communicate effectively through natural opportunities and need a great deal of motivation and practice.

Read more

  • Although sometimes as a parent, it may be obvious what your child wants, encourage them to request it in whatever form they are capable (attempting the sound, pointing, giving a picture of it, signing, using a full sentence, etc.) before providing it.

  • Begin having your child ask for highly preferred items that are in view and within close proximity. If your child cannot say single words yet such as “bubbles,” you might teach your child to imitate “buh” as an approximation.

  • When asking your child to do or get something, use simple, short phrases (e.g., “give me the….” or “get the….”) Whether your child follows through with the direction independently or with help, remember to offer praise and reinforcement.

  • Encourage choice making (e.g., While holding both items up, “Do you want milk or water?”)

  • Narrate daily routines to build everyday vocabulary (e.g., “We are walking down the street and I see a tree and a house and a car!”)

  • Create a "picture communication book" of your child’s favorite activities, foods, items, and basic requests (e.g., eat, drink, play, help). You may want to laminate the pictures, place them on velcro, and provide hand over hand assistance until your child learns to exchange the picture independently.

  • Again, remember that children with autism often need consistency and repetition. Focus on a few highly preferred items or activities and a few simple directions to follow. Provide opportunities to practice them frequently.


Play is important for all young children; it is the primary way they learn.

It’s a time to promote your child’s attention outward using an enriching environment while practicing communication and social skills. Many of the skills listed above are best taught in a fun way during play. Unfortunately, parents of children with autism or suspected autism often express that playtime is challenging because their child has a short attention span, difficulty complying with basic directions, a limited range of interests, or perseverates (e.g., lining up toys, having an intense desire for sameness).

Read more

  • Playtime is most effective when your child is calm, motivated and engaged.

  • Strategies like sitting across from your child and joining in with their activities helps to facilitate parent-child engagement.

  • Playtime should be paired with your child’s favorite toys, items and activities. For example, if your child gravitates to numbers, letters, and shapes, associate these in play (e.g., take turns putting shapes “IN” the shape sorter, counting “1..2..3” before pushing a car down a ramp).

  • Begin to build play skills by expanding the options of what to do with different items. For example, instead of just lining up toy cars, teach to drive down a ramp, say “Beep, beep!” etc.

  • Use playtime to practice waiting, sharing, and turn taking. This promotes important early childhood social skills.

  • Use play to model language.

  • Sitting and attending to a game or activity may be a significant challenge for your child. Try to keep the physical environment calm and organized to reduce distractions.

  • Be realistic about how long your child will sit and play. While you may be able to prompt them to continue a bit longer, follow their lead and let them end play before becoming upset. Keep playtime fun and not demanding. You can slowly build up the length and complexity of play over time as your child gains skills.


During early childhood, many children exhibit tantrum behavior and resort to using problematic behaviors to express themselves or get something they want.

Some challenging behavior - even mild aggression and self-injury - is a typical part of early childhood development; the terms “terrible twos” and “threenager” exist for a reason! Children who are unable to use words to communicate rely heavily on their actions to “tell” us what they are thinking and feeling.

However, your child’s behaviors may be occurring frequently or intensely enough that it is interfering with their ability to interact with others in positive ways. In addition, these tantrums may be occurring over small things, and you may find yourself avoiding certain activities or taking your child to certain places. Some children will decrease or stop these behaviors as they get older and gain more skills, but what is manageable when your child is younger may not be as they get older and bigger.

If you find yourself “walking on eggshells” to avoid a problem, more specific support for these behaviors may be necessary. It may help to consider the following when addressing problem behavior in your child:

Read more

  • How could you teach your child to request what they need or want in acceptable, nonaggressive ways? Tell and show your child acceptable ways to reach their goal. For example, your child is highly agitated and hitting you for attention, offer them a way to say “Help” or “Play.” If you interrupt your child’s problematic behavior, but do not offer an acceptable alternative, the unacceptable behavior is likely to continue.

  • Try to decrease problem behaviors without resorting to threats, bribes, punishment, or time out. Instead, be consistent with rules and respond positively to their good behavior. By doing so, you reinforce that behavior and establish consistency and positive interactions. For example, if they cooperate with getting dressed instead of protesting it, there is time for a yummy treat or song they enjoy.

  • Think prevention. Use what you know about your child to plan ahead before escalation occurs. For example, if transitions cause tantrums, give advanced notice of an upcoming change (“We will read one more book, and then it’s time to get in the car to go to school.”)

  • Teach communication skills that help prevent the development of problem behavior. Some of these skills include waiting and asking for help.

  • Once you receive an autism diagnosis and begin treatment, it may be helpful to seek guidance from a professional. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can assess the function of the behavior and tailor an intervention to your family and child’s needs.

Activities of Daily Living

Activities of daily living (ADLs) are basic skills your child needs to navigate their daily lives, such as getting dressed, feeding themselves, toileting, and washing hands.

By introducing self-help skills early, your child will learn the tools that lead to more independence at home, school, and in the community. It is normal for young children to require help with these skills (e.g., very few 3-year-olds are fully independent with toileting), but due to difficulties with imitation and communication, many children with autism need more time and individualized strategies to develop these skills.

Read more

  • Capture opportunities to practice daily routines while providing additional support naturally throughout the day. For example, as a busy parent, it is likely much easier and quicker to dress your young child every morning. However, providing hand-over-hand assistance and systematically fading your prompts until over time can help teach independence with this skill.

  • By breaking routines or multi-steps tasks into small, achievable steps, your child may be more likely to make strides toward independence more quickly. The use of visual aids such as visual charts, activity schedules, and checklists can be a great way to provide support when working on new skills. These visuals break complex daily routines such as hand washing, getting dressed, or “Bedtime Checklist” into smaller tasks.

  • UNC Child Development Institute originally created this resource to support families during the pandemic, offers many great everyday resources specific to creating visual supports and other tools that help with daily living skills.

Looking for ways to prepare for the autism evaluation appointment and service options?  Read our article on Steps to Take While You Wait for a Diagnostic Evaluation.

We’re Here to Support You

Most parents of young children are busy and tired; having concerns about your child’s development only adds to this stress. Many of us think parenting should come naturally; researching and learning additional ways to interact with your child can be overwhelming and upsetting. It may help to join a parent support group which may offer resources and support to help. In addition, Autism New Jersey’s 800.4.AUTISM Helpline is always available for support and reliable resources.