Teaching Autistic Children How to Explain, Discuss, or Describe a Situation that is Not Immediately Present

Children with autism often experience delays or difficulties in conversational skills. Intraverbals are a way for teaching children with autism important communication skills. While many children use visual cues to respond to questions or make requests, the goal is that children are able to participate in a conversation or communicate their needs and wants without visual cues, allowing them more independence in situations outside of home or school. When children are unable to communicate, they can become frustrated. Teaching children intraverbals is a way to empower children with autism the ability to communicate with others.

What are Intraverbals?

Everyday conversations revolve around “who, what, where, when, and why.” For many children with autism, they may use their language for requests or to talk about things that are currently present, but they are not conversational. 

Intraverbals are verbal behaviors that involve day-to-day language. Intraverbals involve basic conversational skills, where children are able to explain, discuss, describe, or answer questions or discuss items without any visual or auditory prompting. Without any prompting, intraverbals involve memory. 

Asking a child, “How old are you?,” “What did you see at the farm last week?” or “Sing the Sesame Street song,” can be too open-ended and require memory and children can experience difficulty answering them. Teaching intraverbals, or language that involves explaining, discussing, or describing something that is not immediately present can empower your child and support their conversational skills.  


Teaching Intraverbals to Your Child With Autism 

Requesting desired objects, requesting help, making choices, providing social responses, and asking/answering “Wh” questions are part of daily living and daily conversations. Choose preferred food, drinks, toys, objects, and motivating images that your child will respond to in order to prompt communication and conversation. 


Here are some easy ways to teach your child intraverbals:

  • Requesting Desired Objects:

Your child will use expressive language to request a desired object. Begin this exercise with 1 object you know the student likes and 2 objects that they either dislike or that are neutral to the student.



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. Place the 3 objects in front of your child.
  3. Ask your child, “Which one do you want”
  4. Have your child form the sentence, “I want (object),” while pointing to the desired object. 
  5. Prompt if necessary. Wait for your child to select and say their desired object.
  6. Give your child whichever object they desire. Receiving something they don’t want should be negatively reinforcing, while receiving the item they do want should be positively reinforcing. 


Your child will learn basic self-advocacy skills by identifying when they need help and appropriately asking instructors, family members, and caregivers for assistance with tasks or activities they can’t complete alone. Gather items your child will want to use, but may have trouble using alone (e.g. toys/snacks that are difficult to open/use, favorite items placed on high shelves, lunch box/jar with favorite treats, etc.). 

For this example, we will use a simple puzzle that is familiar to the student: 



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. Give your child the instruction, “Put the puzzle together.”
  3. little girl with autism building a puzzle with her grandmother at homeAs they begin to work on the puzzle, they may ask for help with various parts of the process. If the student appropriately asks for help, assist them with only what they ask for.
  4. If they do not ask for help, or become visibly frustrated, remind them that you are there to help, but only if they tell you what they need. 
  5. Your child may ask for help in a generic way, such as, “Can you please help me?” Encourage them to be more specific in their request, either by using their words or by showing you what they are trying to do. 
  6. When your child realizes a piece of the puzzle is missing, they should appropriately let you know that they cannot complete the puzzle without the missing piece, and ask you for help. They could say: “Can you help me find the missing piece?”
  7. Prompt as necessary.
  8. When your child appropriately asks for help, let them know you can think of a few places the piece might be. Ask if they would like your help in finding the missing piece. Your child should agree that they would like your help.
  9. Finding the piece may be ample reinforcement, but you should also heavily praise your child for how well they did in asking for help. 


Your child will learn to answer questions using “Yes” and “No” appropriately. Gather a selection of preferred and non-preferred foods, drinks, and objects. Prepare a set of factual “Yes/No” questions to which the student knows the answer. 



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. Offer your child a food, drink, or item that you know they definitely do want or definitely do not want.
  3. Ask a question such as: “Do you want a cookie?” or “Do you want broccoli?”
  4. Prompt as necessary. Prompt “yes” for something you know they want, or “no” for something you know they don’t want.
  5. Wait for the student to say “yes” or “no.”
  6. If they say yes, give them the item, even if you know they don’t want it. If they say no, do not give them the item. 


Your child will learn to select one preferred item from an array of 2 to 5 choices. Gather desirable items that you know your child will ask for and a selection of food or objects that are negative or neutral for your child. 



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. Present 2 items to the student and ask them one of the following:
    1. “Do you want the candy or the soap?”
    2. “Which one do you want?”
    3. “Pick one.”
    4. “Touch the one you want.”
  3. Prompt as necessary. 
  4. Wait for your child to choose the desired object.
  5. If your child is proficient in full sentences, expect them to use a full sentence to indicate their choice: “I want the candy.” If they have not yet mastered full sentences, you can choose to just accept “candy.” Use your judgement. 


Your child will learn to respond appropriately in conversational and social settings. 



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. Ask your child, “What do you say when you see your friend?” or role play the scenario.
  3. Use a variety of scenarios, such as greeting familiar people, saying please/thank you, or saying that you are sorry.
  4. Use varied, informal phrases that resemble typical social interactions. 
  5. Prompt as necessary. 
  6. Wait for your child to say the correct response.

 mother and her small daughter with autism lying on warm wooden floor in sunny cozy living room, learning intraverbals

  • Answering “Wh” Questions 

Your child will correctly answer Who/What/Where/When/Why/How questions.



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. If using visual prompts, place a card in front of the student: the picture of an umbrella, for example. 
  3. Ask your child a “Wh” question based on the picture (i.e. “When do we use an umbrella?”)
  4. Prompt as necessary. 
  5. Wait for your child to say the correct answer: “When it is raining.”
  6. Repeat the process using various “Wh” question words (Who, What, Where, When, Why, Where, How).


  • Asking “Wh” Questions

Your child will correctly answer Who/What/Where/Why/How questions. 

These real photo cards from Stages Learning Materials will help with this lesson:



  1. Sit at a table facing your child. Make sure you have your child’s attention.
  2. Place one image in front of your child and tell them: “Ask me some questions about the picture.”
  3. Prompt as necessary.
  4. Your child should ask you a question such as, “What is it?” Acknowledge your child for asking a question, and then answer the question: “Good asking! It’s a cat.”


Ideas for Generalizing Your Child’s Learning

Conversation skills develop overtime. Your child will be motivated by items that relate to their preferences, interests, and themselves. 

  • mother and daughter with autism standing over kitchen counter and eating cookies together, learning intraverbalsStart with Fill-in-the-Blank Statements. Encouraging language is always important. If your child’s favorite song is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” sing along with them! Let them fill in the blank: “And on his farm there was a-!” When your child fills in the blank with a favorite animal, immediately ask questions, such as “What animal?” or “Where was the animal?”
  • Model asking and answering questions. Wondering out loud may encourage your child to do the same. Grab a jar of cookies and ask, “What is this?” Perhaps your child will be eager to answer or at least curious in exploring as you open up the jar and ask questions and make comments about the contents. Asking natural questions and making observational comments will increase the likelihood your child will start to wonder out loud. 
  • Offer choices. A surefire way to encourage your child to communicate their needs and preferences is to consistently provide choices. Ask your child, “What do you want to have for lunch?” Provide choices and encourage your child to make their own decisions.

Communication abilities are important to helping your child become more independent. Requesting desired objects, asking for help, making choices, giving social responses, and asking/answering “Wh” questions are part of day-to-day life and are essential to learning. Remember to be patient and allow your child time to explore their language skills.


This article is based on the following research and online resources:

The Language Builder: Academic Readiness Intervention System (ARIS) curriculum

I Love ABA 

How to ABA 

North Shore Pediatric Therapy 

ABA Applied Behavior Analysis 

How to ABA: Verbal Operants 

Healis Autism Centre: What are Intraverbals 

RELIAS: Intraverbal Behavior 

Mary Barbera: Teaching Intaverbals 




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