The Power of Communication

while supporting executive functioning and self-efficacy
for young neurodiverse children with autistic styles of learning

© Catherine Faherty 1985-2024 I began developing the following methods in the 1980’s, during my early years of teaching children with autistic styles of learning. These continue to be effective and powerful strategies today. Permission is granted to share this article in its entirety for the benefit of your children, students, clients, and their families. Please credit the author.

You want to help children develop communication skills. You may be focusing on teaching them to talk and to be able answer questions accurately.

Catherine Faherty Student
One of Catherine Faherty’s students in the 1980’s who taught her a lot about how to teach communication.

Although many teachers and parents assume that the ability to talk and acquire a spoken vocabulary ensures the development of communication skills, this assumption often does not often hold true for children with autistic ways of processing, learning, and communicating.

“Being able to talk” and “communicating” are two dramatically different things.

It is essential that neurodiverse children master the reciprocal aspect of communication; and that they learn to initiate communication – not simply to continue to respond to verbal prompts from others.

Note: Greek translation is from the original article


Reciprocity, or the reciprocal aspect of communication, refers to the act of going “back-and-forth” while interacting. You say or do something, and your communication partner says or does something in response, back to you. The more “back-and-forth” happens, the longer the interaction is sustained. At the concrete level, it is compared to the simple game of rolling a ball back and forth with a child, both of you being fully engaged in the activity AND with each other. Two discreet skills at the same time. If you have ever tried rolling a ball back and forth – or playing catch with a young child who has an autistic learning style, you know that this doesn’t happen as easily or as naturally as it does with non-autistic children. Often, it doesn’t happen at all. It takes explicit teaching (as a routine) and consistent practice to strengthen participation in reciprocity.


The practice of initiating communication is a requisite skill to be able to ask for help, which is crucial to future self-advocacy. We know that one of the most difficult of the many executive functioning skills that often doesn’t come easily nor naturally for people with an autistic style of processing and learning, is to initiate an action – including the initiation of communication. If we are not aware, we run the risk of teaching children to communicate only by answering questions, or after they have been verbally prompted in other ways by an “outside voice”. Teachers, parents, and therapists must help these children experience how powerful it can be to initiate communication, to say what is true for them – and that it is worthwhile doing the hard work to get there! Because it is hard work, we need to make it as easy and accessible as possible when asking autistic children to do something that feels unnatural. How do we make learning this essential skill more accessible?

Accessibility: Match teaching style to their learning style

A key to teaching children with autistic styles of learning is to match your teaching style to their learning style.  Hence my rallying cry in my classrooms and trainings since the 1980’s, “Make it visual!”

Visually structured teaching

Visually structured teaching, as pioneered and developed in the TEACCH Progam since the 1970’s, greatly enhances the acquisition of skills with visual learners. This is true with all skills, including speech, language, and most importantly, communication skills. You do not have to purchase any special program or products in order to create a communication system for your child! As with all solid teaching strategies, these must be individualized for each learner. Here I offer specific visually structured strategies and urge you to individualize when indicated for each of your students.

This article describes how to begin; the basics for you to put in place while individualizing for your young child at home or at school.  It covers the following:

  • TRANSITION OBJECTS answering the question “What’s going to happen?”
  • FINISHED BASKET showing that “This is this finished!”
  • EXPRESSIVE SUPPORT giving the child an accessible way to express their needs and wants.
  • CHOICE MAKING (between 2 options) helping the child to see two options and to discover that they may like one over the other, communicating “This is my preferred choice.”
  • CREATING A COMMUNICATION SYSTEM may be the next logical step,as a visual reminder in an accessible system to initiate “This is what is important to me now, and I’m letting you know.”

TRANSITION OJBECTS: Provide predictability and build receptive language. These are objects that you will choose from the child’s natural daily environment which clarify and communicate to your child “what’s going to happen” or “what’s next” or “where to go now.” They help direct children from one activity to another, to show what to expect, and set the stage for the ever-important experience of self-efficacy – being able to figure out for themselves what will happen throughout their day. Transition objects are the alternative to a child developing an ingrained habit of following someone else’s prompts in order to know what to do. Transition objects help organize the child’s time and space. Transition objects allow them able to predict what is happening, from activity to activity, from place to place. Transition objects provide predictability. By helping all these things, transition objects support executive functioning.

Transition objects are simply concrete items that relate to the different activities and locations that make up the child’s day. Transition objects for home and/or school might include the following examples:

CUP = time to go to the table for snack

DIAPER = time to go to the bathroom to be changed

PAPER TOWEL = time to go to the bathroom (if not in diapers)

HEADPHONES = time to listen to music

CARPET SQUARE (to sit on) = time for circle time (in the classroom)

PEG (from pegboard) = time to work 1-1 with teacher (or therapist or parent)

Catherine Faherty handing Transition Object (ball) to young student

WASHCLOTH = time for bath

BALL = time to play outside

FAVORITE TOY= time to go to the free play area in the classroom

PLATE = time to go to the table for lunch

BALL CAP = time to take a walk outside

BOOK = time to go to the reading corner

CASE FOR TABLET = time to watch a video

SPECIAL TOY (a toy reserved for this purpose) = time to ride in the car

GRANDMA’S PHOTO (or an item used only at Grandma’s) = time to go to her house

Teacher handing Transition Object (plate) to student

THE SOAP PUMP = time to wash hands

BLOCK = time to go to block center

PAINT BRUSH = time to go to the painting easel or table

BUBBLE WAND = time to work 1-1 with therapist (blowing bubbles would be the first thing they do routinely each time before other planned activities)

How do you decide what the “correct” objects are?

It is of utmost importance to use objects which make the most sense from your child’s point of view. Consider what object would the child most easily connect with the activity. When a new or novel activity is supposed to happen, prepare ahead of time by handing an object to the child that would most closely relate to the activity from the child’s point of view.

It greatly helps strengthen the connection if the object is literally something that the child will use during the activity – not simply something that “represents” the activity in an abstract sense. In other words, a transition object that means “time to go to the bathroom” could be a piece of a paper towel (that can be thrown in the trash when getting to the bathroom) is better than using a miniature doll-house model of a toilet as a transition object. “It’s time to go to the reading corner” could be a favorite book to be taken to the reading corner and would be better than using a miniature plastic model of a book.

Use caution using photos/pictures exclusively instead of objects: One skill at a time.

If a child shows that they have a generalized and easy understanding of photos and/or other types of pictures, you may use those instead of objects, however in my experience, I have found that it is much more meaningful and powerful to start with objects to help concrete visual learners make these connections.

Teach one new skill at a time!

This is an essential guideline when teaching children with autistic learning style. This means that if you want to teach a child to be able to transition with ease from one activity to another (typically a difficult skill) it is best to use visual cues that are already easily accessible and understandable to that individual child. To expect a child to learn 1) the meaning of a two-dimensional photo or picture, at the same time they are 2)  learning about making transitions, you are expecting the child to learn two big things at the same time. Remember, we want to make each skill acquisition to be as accessible as possible.


Using accessible strategies when teaching new skills not only makes learning easier, it builds trust! If the child has the on-going experience that you are a person whom they can trust to help them more easily negotiate an often-confusing world, you are helping to nurture a mutual and trusting relationship between you and the child. The child learns that they can count on you. They learn that they can trust you to help create a more peaceful, comfortable, and proactive way to get through the day. If you use transition objects, they will learn that you will help them figure out what’s going to happen, just by looking at, receiving, and using the object you are offering! It is concrete and reassuring. They know what’s going to happen! They can figure it out! That feels good! They come to know that you are a trustworthy person…and that you trust that they can figure out what to do without raising anxiety, drama, and stress.

How to start using transition objects

At the beginning of the day, hand your child the object that will take them to the first activity of the day. It could be as natural as handing them the object (favorite toy) that shows them that it’s time to go to the free play area. When it’s time to move to the next activity in the schedule, hand them the appropriate object that relates to the activity that comes next.  Pair it with a simple verbal direction in one or two words.  Always use the same object and same words for each discreet activity.  For example, at home, when it’s time to go to the bathroom to take a bath, hand the WASH CLOTH (or bathtub toy, or whatever the object is used for Bath time) and say, “Time to take a bath”, and immediately go together to the bathtub. After the bath, indicate the end of bath time by presenting a “finished basket.”  (More on “finished baskets” later.)

Say “Bathtime is finished.”  This reinforces the very important concept of “finished.” Make sure you emphasize the word “Finished” as the cloth is placed into the basket. Then offer the transition object that corresponds to the next activity. It might be PAJAMAS. When the pajamas are on, you will give them the next transition object, for example the HEADPHONES saying, “Time for music”, leading to the cozy rocking chair to listen to music.

When it’s time to move on to something else, bring the finished basket to the child, saying “Music time is finished” and immediately give the child the next transition object.

Be consistent

Use transition objects consistently for each and every transition in your child’s day. It is extremely helpful to keep the objects in a basket at a central location, so that everyone––teachers and assistants; or at home, parents and older siblings–– can find the objects when they are needed. At school, it is recommended that teachers wear an apron with pockets for frequently used objects that can be reached quickly and easily. In a central storage area, plan ahead to make sure you have multiple identical objects in the case of the inevitable lost or misplaced objects.

By using transition objects, you are not only helping them handle transitions more calmly, but you are also helping to build communication skills. They will come to connect the object and related word to their functional meaning. You are building receptive language skills!

At the same time, you are also creating the foundation for a concrete, easily understood way to promote expressive language for communication purposes.  You are laying the groundwork for a way to communicate their wants and needs, even if they are not yet speaking ––this will be explained in the next steps.  The more consistent you are with using transition objects for every transition, the quicker they will master calm transitions and increase meaningful receptive language.  Add additional objects for new situations and activities as they come up naturally through the day.  Photographs of people can also be used if they understand who is pictured in the photos.  For example, show a PHOTO OF GRANDMA while you say “Let’s go see Grandma” when getting ready to go to the car.

THE FINISHED BASKET: Finishing one thing and moving on to what’s next.

The complexity of interrupting attention, stopping what they are currently involved in, and switching attention to something else, can be extremely disruptive and problematic for many neurodiverse people – especially autistic children and adults alike. Teachers and parents have unconscious and faulty assumptions that a child will naturally pick up on the concept of “finished.” “Finished” and its partner, “knowing what’s next” are essential concepts that, if taught routinely, and understood, practiced, and mastered by the child, will have a huge impact on all areas of life. Finishing something requires being able to let go of what you are doing and to move on to something new. Using a FINISHED BASKET is a concrete visual way to teach this, best accompanied with a TRANSITION OBJECT to show what’s next.

Placing completed activities into a “finished basket” can be introduced and taught as part of an independent work routine. However, anywhere in the room, have baskets or boxes available to be picked up and used with the child whenever a transition is to take place. Pair “finished” with a transition object showing “_____ is next”.

EXPRESSIVE SUPPORT­ or “I WANT…” After you have been using transition objects consistently, it is time to help your child to more effectively communicate their needs and wants. The transition objects have become a collection of concrete and visual vocabulary! Now, even if your child isn’t yet speaking, your child has a vocabulary for so many aspects of their day. They can begin to learn to hand you the appropriate object to ask you for something specific.  This is called “expressive communication”. Even if a child is speaking, the use of these types of visual cues has been found to actually increase a child’s use of speech functionally for communicative intent.

*This is NOT to be used in place of using the transition objects consistently throughout the day. Keep that up! Using transition objects to enhance your child’s ability to move throughout the day easily and smoothly, should remain a constant that your child can rely on. At the same time, you are increasing their “receptive” communication skills – their comprehension.

The skill we are introducing now (expressive communication) may be added to their day. Do this after they have mastered using TRANSITION OBJECTS.

How do you know when the child has mastered the use and understanding of transition objects? Observe what happens when you hand them a transition object. When you hand them the object and they easily make the transition to the next activity, you know that step is mastered, for that particular activity.

NOW: During a firmly established routine of the day, for example if they enjoy bath time and it always follows dinner, instead of giving him the transition object (WASHCLOTH), place it on the table and prompt them to hand it to you. The idea is to teach them to bring you the washcloth to tell you that they want to take a bath. If necessary, you can use “hand-over-hand” or physically prompt them to hand you the object; then immediately go for the bath. Add this to the routine, always making the WASHCLOTH available at the proper times, and help them hand you the object if they don’t initiate it. With practice, your child will learn to “ask” for bath time (or other activity you have used to teach this skill) on their own, using the object to initiate communication.

When children hand you a particular object and receive what they are asking for, they are learning that not only do objects mean certain things (i.e. SPOON means “Snack time”) but that they can use the object to express their desires to another person. They learn that the action of handing an adult the SPOON means, “I want to have a snack.” Giving the WASHCLOTH to Mommy means “I want to take a bath.” In this way, they will start to begin to understand the power of communication, and that they can do it on their own! This helps the ever-important development of self-efficacy.

We’ve now gone through the basic steps that are the pre-requisites to “choice-making”.

CHOICE MAKING: After transition objects 1) have become integrated into the daily routine, AND you observe that the child 2) independently goes to the activities after being handed the objects, AND they 3) intentionally ask you for things by handing you the appropriate object, you can assess readiness to use the objects to indicate a preferred activity from options­­––to make a choice.

*This is NOT to be used in place of using the transition objects consistently throughout the day. Keep that up! Using transition objects to enhance your child’s ability to move throughout the day easily and smoothly, should remain a constant that your child can rely on. The skill we are introducing now (choice-making) will be added to their day and does not indicate the ending of the use of transition objects! TRANSITION OBJECTS remain as their daily schedule! They will continue to rely on transition objects to predict what’s going to happen today, from activity to activity.

NOTE: This skill of “choice making” is not a substitute for following a schedule that is required in school and life-outside-of-school. Sometimes you have to do what is supposed to happen next. Keep using transition objects.

How to teach choice-making

Give children a choice of two activities by offering two different, familiar objects, and see if they choose one, going immediately to the appropriate place to begin the activity.  One way to find out if they are really making a choice, is to offer a choice of a favored activity (SPOON for “I want a snack”) and something less desirable, maybe (SOAP CONTAINER for “wash hands”). Even if children choose what you know is something that they don’t really want, give it to them anyway, quickly, showing the connection.  But then, offer the same two choices again, physically prompting them to pick the preferred activity, if they don’t automatically choose on their own.

Snack time is a natural way to introduce and teach choice-making.

Using large labels/pictures cut from the food boxes they are familiar with, have your child choose between the two box labels. One offering could be a favorite snack, the other choice a food they don’t like. Remember, if they choose the label of the food they don’t like, quickly give it to them anyway. If she is ready to learn this skill, they will get it sooner by you being “quick and consistent” with your responses. Then help them choose the label of their favorite food to give to you. If the labels seem confusing or unclear to the child, you can put a small sample of the food in its own closed baggie taped to a card, and use these baggies-taped-on-cards to indicate the choices, just like you would use the box labels or pictures. “Snack time” is a perfect time to teach and practice choice-making!

CREATING A COMMUNICATION SYSTEM: Once children understand the meaning of the objects and have used them independently to express their wants (as in the previous steps), you can create a communication basket or communication board.  The goal is for the child to choose an object from an array of choices and bring it to you. They will be initiating communication by telling/showing you what he wants from several choices or possible options of activities, toys, food, etc.

In setting up this communication system, you will need to make sure that the child

(1) has easy access to a basket of objects which represent the choices available at a given time (or a board with objects Velcroed to it),

(2) picks up the object which represents their desired activity, and

(3) brings this object to you.

For example, if your child wants to listen to music, they would look through their communication basket (or the communication board with objects fastened to it), find the HEADPHONES and bring them to you communicating “I want to listen to music.” You immediately say “Music!”  or if they are beginning to imitate some words, you may say “I want music,” to encourage them to repeat the phrase.  Whether they repeat it or not, immediately guide them to the tape deck and get the music started. In this way you are reinforcing their act of communication! While they are learning about communication, it is important to reinforce their attempts. This means that if they ask you for something even without speech, please respond by giving it to them.  If there are things that you do not want them to have at certain time, or things that aren’t available, you must remove those particular objects from the choice options, so that they are not an option. At this point, if teaching the basics of communication is a priority for you and your child, you must make sure that there are options that they really want, AND that it is okay for them to have right now.


  1. Start by using transition objects for each and every change – each transition in your child’s day.
  • Always use the same objects for the same activities.  Be consistent.
  • Keep your words clear, simple and precise, as you hand them the objects. 
  • Go immediately to the place or begin the activity right away.
  • Use transition baskets to teach the concept of completion, always handing a transition object immediately after placing the finished activity in the basket to show what’s next. “____is finished, now it’s time for _____.”
  • After mastering the receptive use of transition objects, teach them to hand you the object to ask for something specific in an already established routine.                      
  • Choice-making: After consistently using transition objects, AND after they have learned to hand you ONE object at a time to express their wants, give them the opportunity to indicate their preference by handing you an object from a choice between only two things.  Assess this skill periodically.  Move on to the next step after they have mastered this step, with a variety of options.
  • After mastering the previous skills, create a communication basket or communication board.  This is a long-term goal; make sure you give them plenty of time to understand the use of objects and to practice asking for what they want with objects, before introducing a communication basket or board.  Too many visuals at the same time can be confusing and making learning difficult or inaccessible, if they haven’t yet mastered the prerequisite skills. Go slowly, step by step. Your intent should be on solid mastery of skills. The communication board at first may have only 2-3 options displayed. More options can be added slowly, over time.
  • If your child is interested in photographs or pictures, you can substitute photos or pictures for the objects.  It is recommended that you do this gradually, substituting one at a time, making sure that he is able to use the picture as effectively as the object before adding more pictures. In the beginning, use labels of food boxes and toy boxes when possible.  For some children, an easily recognizable, good, clear photograph, might be better than a symbolic drawing.  For others, symbolic type pictures work best. The key is to use the types of visual cue that make the most sense to your child. Assess what is most meaningful to them, through observing carefully and objectively.
  1. One type of visual cue is not better than the other. The best visual cues are the ones that he can use meaningfully. Visual cues can be one or a combination of the following:
  • Objects your child actually will use in the activity (PAINT BRUSH for painting time, BALL for going to the gym, COAT for going outside, DIAPER for bathroom, LUNCH BOX for lunch time, PUZZLE PIECE for the puzzle center (with the appropriate puzzle waiting for its piece on the table), etc.
  • Product Labels from food boxes or toy boxes. These are often an easily accessible way to move from actual objects (3-D) to pictures (2-D).
  • Photographs that are clear and uncluttered.  Too many unnecessary details might confuse. Make sure the photo depicts exactly, literally, concretely, what is it meant to represent. Shoot photos from the vantage point of the child – at their eye level!
  • Pictures – Drawings or Picture Symbols

Use what is most easily understood by your child!   Let communicating be as EASY as possible for your child.  In this way, they will be willing to communicate more often, using and strengthening their power of communication.

The backbone of all of these ideas is the consistent use of transition objects throughout the day! TRANSITION OBJECTS (OR PICTURES) should not be discontinued as you add other skills, activities, and events. Use transition objects/pictures to help increase receptive language, strengthen executive functioning and self-efficacy. As a child grows, the transition objects may evolve into the use of a picture or written schedule, and eventually to the use of checklists and calendars to stay organized in life – the same way you get through your day!