Alternative Communication Strategies

What are your child's communication goals?

When parents come in for an initial evaluation, we often hear that their child's primary goal is to work on communication. Usually, when asked the right questions, they want their child to speak vocally. At Circle City ABA, this is our goal as well. We want to build language as well as communication. Communication comes in many different forms!

What many parents do not realize is that their child is already communicating with them. It could be in the way of problem behavior: Does your child scream or hit you until you give them some milk? Do they hit their head on the wall until you pay attention to them? Your child is already trying to communicate with you in any way they know how to.

Our goal as Board Certified Behavior Analysts

As Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA's), our goal is to identify what your child is trying to say and replace that behavior with appropriate communication.

In the above example, your child screams and hits you until you give him milk. This behavior will continue every time he wants milk, until it’s replaced with something else. So, we work on finding the best way your child can communicate that he wants milk.

It could be pointing to the milk in the refrigerator, using the initial sound such a “mmmm” for milk, using the sign for milk, or pulling off a picture of the milk and handing it to you. Any and all of these behaviors are more appropriate ways of asking for something to drink besides hitting and screaming. 

Types of communication systems we use at Circle City ABA:


This can be used for early learners who have difficulty with attending, fine motor, and echoics which are prerequisites for the other systems.


Imitation and fine motor skills are needed before this can be taught to your child. We can modify signs to each child so sometimes the sign for milk may look differently for each child.

Picture Exchange

Picture exchange is most commonly referred to as PECS. PECS systems use pictures that the child will choose to identify what he or she wants. In the formal PECS system, there are no prerequisites for the child to learn how to use the system. Ideally, picture exchange will progress faster if your child can attend to an array of cards, but it is not a requirement.

Vocal Speech

This is the ultimate goal for most of our parents! We never stop trying for vocals, ever. Your child could be using single sounds, or parts of words, whole words, approximations of words, one word phrases, two-three word phrases, or sentences. It all builds on each other!

As your child is developing sounds and vocals, they still need a way to communicate. This is where other systems come in. I've witnessed parents be afraid of trying the other systems as they believe their child will not want to speak. The opposite is actually true! In all of these systems, your child is hearing the word over and over again. Repetition is key. Vocal language comes when words are heard over and over again.

Your BCBA will work with you and your Speech Language Pathologist, (if you have one) to identify the appropriate communication system for your child. Your child could have experience with all of the methods in ABA as we are shaping their communication response. We’ve had children come to us with no vocal communication or have 1 or two words, start with signing, then gain single words, and are now talking in conversations.

A few reminders when working on communication skills:

More than likely, you know what your child wants without him having to ask. It is important that you continue to have them ask for what they want in the recommended communication system so they gain practice and will communicate at home instead of just in the center.

Try not to compare your child’s ABA journey with other children. If something does not work for your child, your BCBA is trained to change, modify, or completely start over until something works.

We will be right there with you, shedding a tear and cheering loudly when your child either says their first word, points to a choice on their own, signs independently or goes to their book and pulls off a picture. It is their journey, we celebrate everything!

Please reach out to your BCBA if you have any questions or concerns on how to work on your child’s communication system.