Autism is a developmental disability that affects the way an individual experiences the world. Autism can manifest very differently from person to person but overall it can influence language development, motor development, sensory processing & regulation, and social development. Autism is rooted in different neurology, or a differently-wired brain, and therefore is not something to be cured.
Autism & Language Delays or Disorders
Not all autistic children have language delays or disorders but many do. Significant delays in reaching milestones like using gestures/signs, first 50 words, word combining, and sentence use are common. It is also common for language skills to develop “out-of-order” in comparison to typical children and for apparent regression (the loss of previously-used gestures/signs or words) to occur in the 1-2 years of age range.
Autism & AAC
Some children may be non-speaking or speak little and use low-tech or high-tech alternative augmentative communication (AAC) to express themselves. Low-tech devices typically may use pictures or have the child spell or write out what they wish to communicate; high-tech devices include communication apps or programs on devices like tablets, computers, phones, or specially-made communication devices.
Children who use AAC may later move towards using verbal speech or they may not; however, AAC use can only help and never hurt a child’s ability to learn communication skills. AAC exposure, just like learning gestures/signs, will not prevent an autistic child from learning speech if it within their abilities.
Autistic Language Development: Gestalt Language Processing
Language development make look different in an autistic individual than it does than in a neurotypical or non-autistic one. One reason for this is that the majority of autistic individuals are gestalt language processors, or children who learn language via chunks or strings of words they hear in situations. Most children are analytical language processors: they learn individual words meanings like “dog” and then work their way up to word combinations and sentences; however, gestalt language processors move in the opposite direction, first learning strings like “look at that dog!” for contexts in which a dog might be seen before learning the meanings of the individual words like “look” and “dog”.
Autistic children often demonstrate echolalia where they verbally repeat the language that they hear. An autistic child may immediately repeat something that is said or do so after some delay (after some time has passed). Delayed echolalia, where a child will repeat a line they heard from someone or from tv/movies is also known as “scripting”. Echolalia and scripting often serve communicative purposes, though it may take some detective work to figure out what the child or individual is really meaning to say. Like non-autistic individuals, autistic children could be using their imitated words and lines to protest, comment, take turns, gain attention, ask for something, or answer a question. Sometimes echolalia may show that a child doesn’t not fully understand what is being asked or said to them, and sometimes echolalia or scripting may help a child regulate or stay calm in a stressful situation or environment. Careful observation can help parents, teachers, and support staff figure out some of the reasons that an autistic person is using certain scripts in certain situations.
Autism and Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS)
It is somewhat common for autism to co-occur with childhood apraxia of speech. Unfortunately, there is still little research on appropriate and successful treatments of CAS among autistic children.
Treatment for Autism-Related Language Delays or Disorders
Speech-Language therapy can assist a child in learning to communicate and meeting language or communication milestones. For older children, speech-language therapy can treat disordered language or language/communication that can be challenging for others to understand. Services can also teach families and caregivers how to use alternative augmentative communication, or AAC, to model and promote their child’s communication development. Whether a child is speaking or using alternative communication methods like a communication app or a core picture board, all communication methods help the child to express his wants, needs, and interests; an autistic child who is able to communicate is less likely to try to convey their message with behaviors like eloping (running away) or hitting.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I know if my child is autistic?
An autistic child will usually present with some of the following signs:
- avoiding eye contact,
- not using gestures
- not pointing
- not babbling or did not babble as a baby
- lost words that they previously had, usually between 1-2 years of age
- repeating words and phrases they heard from people or media (echolalia, scripting) without an obvious communicative intent or purpose
- lack of interest or less interest in social games like peek-a-boo, turn-taking games, etc.
- Stimming behaviors like hand-flapping
- Walking on toes, possibly due to sensory issues
- Sensory issues: maybe be very sensitive to lights, sounds, certain textures in food or clothing
- Sensory issues: may alternatively require a lot of sensory stimulation, movement, physical contact, etc to regulate themselves
- May be a very picky eater
Will my autistic child ever speak?
Many autistic children achieve normal speech given treatment and intervention. Some children never quite reach an adult-like level of typical speech but nonetheless make large gains in clearer communication and/or oral speech.
For a smaller percentage of children, they may primarily use alternative-augmentative communication devices or AAC in order to effectively communicate. This last group of children can also become extremely effective communicators like so many AAC users around the world. It is worth noting that even verbal children benefit and make progress using AAC, and this is not a tool of last resort in terms of treatment and/or communication.
Why do you say "autistic child" instead of "child with autism?"
The autistic community generally prefers identity-first language, and this is because many autistic people regard autism as a core part of their identity and personality vs a condition that they happen to have. For more information on identity-first language and the autistic community, you can look here.
Will using low or high-tech AAC (alternative augmentative communication) hurt my child's ability to speak?
No, introducing and using AAC will not prevent or harm your child’s ability to use and learn verbal speech. In fact, research shows that AAC often helps an autistic child make more progress with verbal communication.