One of the areas of impairment in a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (including autism) is in the area of speech delay and social communication.
In fact, delayed speech and lack of normal communication protocols are often some of the early signs a child may have a disorder that needs evaluating.
• Infant does not respond with imitative sounds when an adult makes cooing sounds
• Never verbalizes sounds or words in order to get a parent’s attention
• Doesn’t look at someone who is talking
• Doesn’t respond to normal stimuli
Of course, in an infant it is more difficult to pinpoint communication problems because children develop at different rates. Often it is the speech delays coupled with other behavioral indications that lead a parent to seek medical evaluation for their infant or toddler.
As the ASD child grows and develops it becomes much clearer there is impairment in social communication. This impairment is intertwined with impairments in the areas of social interaction and cognitive processes. This only makes sense when you consider that autistic children have a brain disorder that prevents them from processing input information in a typical manner.
Considering Normal Speech Development for Comparison
Before delving too deeply into a discussion concerning speech delay in autistic children, it’s important to understand how speech and language normally develops.
The first 3 years of a child’s life is a critical stage of speech and language development. During these 3 years the child’s brain is maturing rapidly and is normally able to quickly absorb a wealth of stimuli including sights and sounds. The infant and toddler will participate in a lot of imitative behavior that includes repeating words, testing the ability to make different sounds, combining verbal and non-verbal communication and talking to other humans.
In the early stages of communication, the child will indulge in certain behaviors that seem random but are actually part of the communication development process.
For example, making repetitive sounds and talking uninterpretable jargon is actually the child’s attempt to communicate. As the brain matures further the first words are produced and by the age of 2 he or she should be able to make some simple sentences.
By the age of 3 the young child actually begins to develop a broader vocabulary, and as any mother will confirm, has learned to use language as a tool to achieve goals.
For example, the child knows asking for hugs or food could result in both, but the child also intuitively has learned that “cute” behavior can net rewards too. By three years old a child has developed early friendships and uses verbal and non-verbal communication during play time with others.
All of this speech and language development relies on a maturing brain that is able to process sights, sounds and communication cues in other people’s facial expressions and body language. Even a 1 year old child can look at a mother’s expression and interpret if she is happy or upset.
Communication Problems in Autistic Children
Medical researchers have still not pinpointed what causes communication problems in autistic children though the answers lie in brain development. Some of the speech and language impairments often found in ASD children include these signs and symptoms of autism.
• Lack of language development
• Speech delay
• Develops alternate form of communication such as repetitive gesturing
• Develops echolalia or the repetition of vocalizations expressed by someone else (i.e. repeats a question rather than answering it)
• Cannot grasp abstract or imaginative concepts
• Unable to carry on a conversation
• Speaks with an odd pattern or with unusual vocal characteristics
• Speaks things that are meaningless
• Cannot understand and respond to even simple requests
Some researchers believe the inability to process imaginative thinking and speech delay are intricately entwined. A simple way to think about this is that words are actually symbols for deeper thoughts and meanings. If you can’t interpret symbols of any kind due to lack of cognitive development then speech delay would be an expected common occurrence.
Another related issue concerning communication patterns of autistic children is the fact they do not rely on gestures to replace verbal communication. The repetitive gestures are an autistic child’s behavior that has unknown causes and are not normally a form of communication. This is an important distinction that aids in autism diagnosis.
There is another important concept to understand in the area of speech delay and language development. ASD children often have no problems with word pronunciations if and when they do speak. However, one of the common autism signs is they have problems using language and understanding word meanings.
Typical communication characteristics of autistic children
• Little or no eye contact
• Extremely short or no attention span
• Unable to respond to others making it appear they are ignoring the person talking
• Does not provide feedback in two-way communication
A child with an ASD condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome may have some language skills but has trouble communicating with others simply because he or she does not process information the way someone without ASD would during a conversation. For example, a friend may ask the ASD person how they are doing. The ASD child does not understand a response is required and doesn’t comprehend what information is being requested. The ASD child may just walk away making him or her appear rude.
Learning to Communicate
There are several treatment methods commonly used to treat ASD children.
• Work with a speech language pathologist
• Create specific play time activities that involve both speech and behavioral changes
• Work with an occupational therapist to reduce undesirable behaviors that limit the ability to improve speech and language skills
• Concepts training using teaching tools such as objects, flashcards, toys and pictures
• Music therapy
• Sensory integration therapy
There is not a specific treatment program because each ASD child needs a specialized program. That is one of the reasons treatments are so expensive. There is not a one-treatment-fits-all for autism. Families and teachers who work with autistic children spend many hours of instruction teaching autistic children on even a single object or concept trying to engage and retrain the child’s brain.
Many times the child is inundated with sights, sounds and colors but in a natural way. For example, using school themes that reinforce material being taught can help the child learn how to process information input.
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