Riders with Autism Part 5 – Communication Techniques

This may be a little repetitive from the last post and others this year, but I think it’s nice to have it all in one place as it relates to riders with Autism. Enjoy!

Riders with Autism Part 5 – Communication Techniques

Communication Concepts

First off, let’s understand a little about communication and how it relates to rider with Autism.

Communication Forms

The Indiana Resource Center for Autism lists the following forms of verbal and nonverbal communication, from most to least conventional. You and I tend to use the top most forms, while nonverbal individuals are unable to use those so they must use behaviors further down.

  • Speech
  • Written
  • Picture/Word board
  • Sign language
  • Gestures (conventional)
  • Echolalia (repetition)
  • Manipulation (physical)
  • Facial expressions
  • Proximity
  • Idiosyncratic speech
  • Idiosyncratic gestures
  • Screaming
  • Self-injurious behavior
  • Aggression

Influences on Communication

Communication can be impacted by the following, which many individuals with Autism may have:

  • Actual communication disorders – Receptive, Expressive, Nonverbal, Language, Speech
  • Sensory integration disorders
  • Learning styles – visual, auditory, kinesthetic
  • Processing time – can be different for expressive and receptive
  • Medication – can affect processing time, etc.
  • Motor planning – understanding a request, processing, planning, coordinating body parts, performing the task; Apraxia disorder
  • Communication elsewhere – at home, school, therapy, with friends, etc.
  • Past communication experiences – positive, negative

Behavior is an Attempt to Communicate

Behavior is usually a form of communication. The Indiana Center for Autism gives some great examples of behaviors and what they could mean here: A Message to Novices and Strangers to ASD: Look for Behavioral Communication

Communication Tips

Understanding the above, here are some ideas to help communication with individuals with Autism.

  • Be consistent
    • Use the same communication methods used at home and school
      • discuss with their parents or caregiver
    • Always use the same words and gestures
      • for skills, objects, movements, requests, etc.
      • switching up the terms may result in confusion, and they won’t usually let you know when they don’t understand
  • Add communication into your lesson plan!
    • Plan what communication methods will be used with your rider
    • Plan for processing time
    • Add time to talk with volunteers before and after the lesson about these methods
  • Give them processing time
    • Don’t give them more communication prompts than they need – too much help and they may not try
    • Give them plenty of time to prepare to perform the task. Ask the sidewalker to give them a heads up.
    • May benefit from going last – so they can watch others perform the task, and not feel pressured by someone behind them
  • Give concrete visual examples
    • Often they need to SEE something to help understand what you are communicatin
  • Demonstrate
    • Demonstrate desired communication methods to the rider
    • Demonstrate how to facilitate the rider’s communication to the volunteers, so they can help give the rider individualized attention
  • Incorporate the whole team
    • Before the lesson give the volunteers needed information about how to communicate with the rider and facilitate communication
    • After the lesson provide time to discuss with the team (parents, volunteers, caregiver, etc.) how communication went and make ideas for next time.
  • Use learning styles
    • Notice if they learn better hands on or visually – they often have a harder time with verbal directions
  • Use “First/then”
    • Say “First [do this], then [do that].” Then stick to your guns.
    • For a little more info, see this blog post
  •  Sing
    • “Some children and adults can sing better than they can speak. They may respond better if words and sentences are sung to them. Some children with extreme sound sensitivity will respond better if the teacher talks to them in a low whisper.” (Grandin)
    • Sing to them about whatever you are doing with them. “I’m riding on my horse…I’m riding on my horse…Hi Ho the Dairy-O, I’m riding on my horse.” “I’m getting on my horse, I’m sitting softly down, Hi Ho the Dairy-O, I’m walking on my horse.”

For more ideas see my blog post about communication tips for severely disabled riders 

Visual Communication Tools

Here are some common physical communication tools you can create to help riders with autism:

Visual Schedules

  • Create a step by step schedule using pictures and words.
  • Can include each activity’s expectations.
  • Can include timer for how long each activity lasts.
  • Use to clarify expectations throughout the lesson and help with transitions
  • Use it to motivate them to do less favored tasks in reward for preferred activities afterward
  • Use it to help promote expressive communication

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System)

  • Pictures, objects, symbols, etc. that the individual gives to someone who immediately gives them the real thing.
  • For more info on PECS see these sites:
  • PECS for riding might include:
    • On a board
    • On a bracelet
    • On rings attached to the saddle

Communication Boards

  • Visual representations for things the child might want to communicate related to the task at hand are placed on a communication board, so they can pick what they want to communicate.
  • More info on Communication Boards
  • Representations to use for riding might include:
    • I want, I feel, I see…
    • Happy, sad, confused, pain
    • Horse, instructor, leader, sidewalker, me, reins
    • Halt, walk, stop
    • Poles, rings, ball
    • Use to visually demonstrate task sequences.

Social Stories

  • A story used to model appropriate social interaction by describing a situation with relevant social cues, other’s perspectives, and a suggested appropriate response.
  • For more info, see my post on Social Stories
  • FYI, there are iPad apps that allow you to create social stories with voice recordings


  • Communication devices: iPad, iPhone, etc. with communication programs on them
  • If the rider has their own, incorporate it into parts of the lesson when appropriate

More information plus pictures of the above techniques can be found on SpecialEd.us here: Descriptions of Visual Support Methods

The Indiana Resource Center for Autism also has some nice material on Resources for Visual Support and Communication Resources.

I hope that helps!

Coming up next: Behavior Management and Meltdowns (woohoo!)

Sources (for this whole series)


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!

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