Speech Therapy and Autism

Autism is a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social skills and communication.  Recent studies show that 1 in every 88 children is diagnosed with autism.  Autism is different for every child and can range from mild to severe – which is why it’s termed autism spectrum disorders.

Children with autism may have difficulties with communication, social skills and reacting to the world around them.  According to ASHA (American Speech-Language Hearing Association), the possible signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders include:

  • Not speaking or very limited speech
  • Loss of words the child was previously able to say
  • Difficulty expressing basic wants and needs
  • Poor vocabulary development
  • Difficulty following directions or finding objects that are named
  • Repeating what is said (echolalia)
  • Difficulty answering questions
  • Speech that sounds different (e.g. “robotic” speech or speech that is high-pitched)

Not every child with autism will have a language delay.  A child’s ability to communicate will vary, depending on his or her cognitive and social skills.  Some children with autism may be nonverbal (unable to speak) while others may have wide vocabularies and produce words and phrases without difficulty.  However, most children with autism will have difficulty using language effectively.  These difficulties may include expressing their thoughts to others, understanding words and maintaining two way conversations.

Repetitive Language (aka “echolalia”) is exhibited when children may say words that are out of context. Sometimes they repeat words immediately and sometimes they repeat words they’ve heard earlier or on TV shows.  Many children with autism will have difficulty with nonverbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions.  They often avoid eye contact, which can make them seem inattentive.  They also have difficulty picking up on social cues and other nonverbal communication from others.

Once the child receives a diagnosis of autism, a referral for a speech and language evaluation is made. This evaluation is completed by a certified and licensed speech-language pathologist.  Helping children with autism communicate is essential to helping them reach their full potential.  It is best to start therapy as soon as a diagnosis is made in order to have the best outcomes.

For younger children, therapy will focus on pre-language skills (eye contact, gestures, babbling, etc) and other vocalizations.  Sign language may be introduced in order to provide your child with a way to communicate before they can say the words.

For older children, therapy will focus on the functional use of language.  This includes having conversations with others, maintaining topics and taking turns while speaking.

Some studies have shown that 25% of all children with autism may never develop verbal language skills.  If a child is nonverbal, other forms of communication may be implemented.  This may include PECS (picture exchange communication system) or other AAC (augmentative alternative communication) devices.  These AAC devices range from low-tech picture boards to high-tech electronic systems with voice output capabilities.  Your child’s speech-language pathologist will work closely with you and your child to determine which communication system is best for your child.

With advancements in technology, many parents, teachers and therapists are using the iPad and other tablet devices to help children and adults with autism communicate with others.  There are several apps on the market and prices range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars.  If you are using an iPad with your child, please let your child’s speech-language pathologist know which apps you are using.  Working together, you can ensure that your child will carry over skills in a variety of environments.  For more information about apps for autism, please check out the following links:

10 Revolutionary iPad Apps to Help Autistic Children

7 Assistive Communication Apps in the iPad App Store

Autism Apps (a list developed by Autism Speaks)

Finding Good Apps for Children with Autism

If you suspect your child may have a speech and language delay and you would like to have an evaluation, please contact ASHA to search for a certified and licensed speech-language pathologist in your area.

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