Teaching Tone of Voice to Students with Autism

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning how to identify and modulate tone of voice is often challenging for students with autism. This lesson discusses the significance of tone and offers ideas about how to teach it effectively.

Why Tone of Voice Matters

As a teacher of students on the autism spectrum, Ms. Jeffrey knows that one of her most important jobs is helping her students learn ways they can communicate with others. Autism can make it really hard for students to read social cues and respond in expected ways. Ms. Jeffrey wants her students to be part of a broader community and knows this will require specific instruction.

Right now, Ms. Jeffrey is working with her students around the idea of tone of voice. In other words, she wants them to understand that how they say something is just as important as what they say. This means working on intonation, volume, and pitch, among other things. Ms. Jeffrey spends some time thinking about how to teach tone of voice to her students with autism.

Tone of Voice and Autism

Autism, as Ms. Jeffrey knows, makes some aspects of tone of voice very complicated. First of all, many of her students also have language delays that make all oral expression difficult. Further, they do not pick up readily on subtle social cues, and their tone can therefore be flat and loud regardless of what they are saying.

Conversely, Ms. Jeffrey's students mostly do not intuitively understand the emotions in the tones that other people use. This can lead to a variety of communication breakdowns and a sense of isolation.

Specific Activities

Ms. Jeffrey decides that she will incorporate specific activities dealing with tone of voice into her instruction.

Identification and Response

First, Ms. Jeffrey works with her students on identification, or recognition and understanding, of different tones of voice. She then asks them to respond depending on the tone.

Ms. Jeffrey says the same sentence, 'Let's go!' in several different tones. She shows her students how the same words can sound excited, scared, or angry, depending on how they are said. Then, Ms. Jeffrey repeatedly speaks several different sentences to her students, each in multiple tones of voice. She has her students:

  • identify the emotion
  • describe how they would respond to the statement when spoken this way

Ms. Jeffrey incorporates at least one round of this activity into her daily work with students.

Record Yourself and Listen

Ms. Jeffrey also knows it is important for her students to hear their own tones of voice. She uses an app to record her students as they are talking to her and to one another.

She plays back these recordings and explicitly discusses the tones students hear in their own voices, talking through places where they might use tone to modulate their expression.


Doing role-plays can also be a great way for students with autism to practice tone of voice. Ms. Jeffrey prepares several different scenarios that are realistic in the context of her students' lives. She asks them to act these scenarios out and to practice speaking the same words in a few different tones until they find one that fits with the feelings they are trying to express.

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