Children on the autism spectrum struggle to communicate for a number of reasons. Some are nonverbal or have limited capacity for speech. Others have extensive vocabulary but haven’t mastered functional language. And still others have trouble with empathy, emotions and socialization. By trying these five tips, you can improve your communication with children with autism.

Resources: 101 Curricula and Resources for Homeschooling Kids with Autism

1. Get visual.

For nonverbal children, pictures can boost efforts to communicate. Children use cards with pictures on them to request things they want or need. In addition, cards that express feelings can help children with autism better understand and communicate emotions. Visuals encourage children to interact with others, and this interaction can evolve into language. As technology evolves, apps for smartphones and tablets can fulfill the same purpose.

2. Say what you mean.

Children with autism are literal when it comes to wording. Using sarcasm, idioms or other figures of speech only confuses these children. Speak plainly, and don’t embellish your language. In contrast, children with autism may use vocabulary they don’t fully understand because they memorized words from adult speech, a book, a TV show or a movie. Keep in mind that when they repeat these words or phrases in an inappropriate context, you will need to look for other clues to find the hidden meaning. This encouraging sign also means that children are imitating language and developing their own skills but need some help linking sounds to the appropriate context.

3. Take time to teach.

You’ll need a lot of patience, but don’t rush to immediately give children with autism what you know they need. Children grow their verbal skills by asking for a desired item rather than receiving it automatically or when they motion for it. Likewise, talk to children about their daily routine instead of rushing from task to task. Speak slowly, giving children plenty of time to reflect on your words and respond, and add appropriate gestures with your words. Praise and reward children for attempts to learn from you.

4. Turn to animals.

Although service animal do not teach children to speak, they help children with autism in a number of ways that may eventually lead to better communication with other people. First, they reduce stress and calm children who are overstimulated. One barrier to communication is overstimulation in terms of distracting, hyper-amplified sound, and an animal may help children focus on other people who may be trying to communicate with them. Second, animals give children a sense of acceptance. If children with autism are afraid to try speak and fail, animals are a reassuring presence. Finally, in children who find socializing and empathizing difficult, animals may open up their emotions and increase their sensitivity to how others are feeling.

5. Get professional help.

All children with speech delays benefit from Early Intervention, and children with autism are no exception. The sooner they begin working with a speech therapist, the more likely they are to understand language and communicate verbally. Moreover, the children and their family members and teachers will encounter less confusion and frustration. Specialists know a variety of strategies to encourage communication, focusing first on the language skills needed for daily life. Caregivers and educators work alongside the speech therapist to learn how to continue practicing and using new language skills with their children.

Children with autism need extra support to build their communication skills. Regardless of a particular child’s verbal status, you can help children with autism communicate by using visuals, speaking in concrete language, being patient and turning to animals and professionals for help.