Understanding how your child develops speech and language skills can help you recognize and support their development. When your child receives a diagnosis of autism, these typical milestones for communication look different. By seeking early intervention, in combination with ABA therapy best practices, you can significantly increase your child’s ability to develop the speech and language skills they need to communicate as efficiently as possible.
Speech and Language Development
During your child’s first three years of life, their brain is developing rapidly, the most critical period for acquiring vital speech and language skills. Speech and language skills develop best when you immerse your child in an array of sights, sounds, and consistent exposure to others’ speech and language, across all their natural environments.
There are crucial periods for your child’s speech and language development during infancy and early childhood. During these critical periods, the brain absorbs language most rapidly and effectively. When children do not receive proper exposure to speech and language during these critical windows, communication learning becomes more difficult. While each child varies in speech and language development, a basic guideline for these milestones can help determine your child’s progression.
What Is Speech?
Think of speech as how we say and form sounds and words. Children develop speech
by learning a combination of motor movements with their jaw, mouth, cheek muscles, and tongue, they begin to form and produce sounds, leading to words. Speech includes many components, including:
Voice is the use of vocal folds and breaths to form sounds. Our voice can be soft, loud, high- or low-pitched.
Articulation is how we form speech sounds using our lips, mouth, and tongue.
Fluency refers to the rhythm of speech, which allows us to express ourselves articulately.
What Is Language?
Language refers to the words we use. It encompasses how we use them to express desires and needs. Developing language includes what you express and understand, both verbally and nonverbally. Language includes reading and writing, as well as:
- The meaning of the words we use when they have more than one representation
- How new words form to express different meanings
- The order in which we use words to form proper thoughts and sentences
- Knowing how to express the words you choose
Language development supports your child’s ability to communicate, understand, and express feelings while supporting:
- Thinking strategies
- Ability to develop and maintain relationships
Learning to use and understand language is also a critical step to:
- Foundation for learning
Speech and Language: The Differences
Many children experience a combination of speech and language needs but can have one without the other. It’s important to note the differences between speech and language learning and disorders. Children who have difficulty understanding receptive language – what others say – or difficulty sharing their wants, feelings, and needs – expressive language – may have a language disorder. Children with speech difficulties may:
- Have trouble producing correct speech sounds
- Stutter or hesitate when speaking
- Struggle with correctly combining sounds and syllables to form words, known as apraxia of speech
How Autism Affects Communication
Children with ASD struggle with the ability to communicate and interact with others successfully. Your child may have difficulty developing speech and language skills and understanding what others are trying to express. Even communicating nonverbally is a challenge, such as:
- Hand gestures
- Eye contact
- Facial expressions
Your child’s ability to use speech and language skills may depend on their intellectual and social development. Some children with autism may not be able to communicate using speech or language, while others have limited speaking skills. Others have an extensive vocabulary, able to talk extensively about particular subjects.
Children with autism typically face issues with the meanings and rhythms of words and sentences. They have trouble understanding body language and vocal tones, limiting their ability to interact with others socially.
Children with autism tend to exhibit the following speech and language difficulties:
Repetitive or Rigid Language
Children with autism who can speak will often say things that lack meaning or do not relate to the current conversations. For instance, immediate echolalia occurs when a child repeats words another person says, in person or from media. Your child may also respond to a question with the same question.
With delayed echolalia, the child will repeat words from a previous conversation.
Some children with autism speak with a high-pitch, sing-song voice, or use robotic-like speech patterns. Others use generic or informal phrases to begin a conversation, even around friends, family, and regular caregivers.
Exceptional Abilities and Narrow Interests
While some children with ASD can have in-depth conversations about a topic that greatly interests them, they may not have the ability to make this a two-way conversation. Others have musical talents or advanced abilities, such as exceptional mathematical skills. In fact, roughly ten percent of children with autism possess exceptional skills in areas including:
Uneven Language Development
Many children with autism develop some speech and language skills, but progress is typically uneven. Your child may develop a strong vocabulary in an area of great interest, while other areas will seem stagnant. They may be able to read words easily, but not register their meaning. You may also notice your child may not respond to others, even if addressing them by name.
Lacking in Nonverbal Skills
Gestures are often a struggle for children with autism. During ABA therapy sessions, nonverbal cues are often a primary goal. Parents and caregivers benefit significantly by learning and using ABA techniques for this very purpose. Implementing ABA strategies, such as positive reinforcement, will help strengthen your child’s ability to communicate with nonverbal actions, such as gestures successfully.
Children with ASD often avoid eye contact, appearing to have a lack of interest or being inattentive. The use of meaningful gestures and other nonverbal skills will help enhance their language skills. Repetition and modeling through ABA practice will enhance these abilities, allowing your child to bypass frustration in their attempts to express feelings and needs. This may significantly reduce outbursts or other inappropriate behaviors they may commonly display. Through the consistent practices of ABA, your child will learn to form appropriate and acceptable behaviors, while adopting these new skills.
The most common speech and language struggles for children with autism are:
Roughly one in three people with autism struggles producing speech sounds effectively:
- Babbling with word-like sounds
- Grunting, shrieks, harsh sounds, and cries
- Hums or talks in a musical rhythm
- May use the correct words and sentences but uses an expressionless tone of voice
- Ability to memorize but lack understanding
- Difficulty with conversational skills
- Struggles with eye contact and gestures
- Heavy reliance on echolalia to communicate
- Struggles with understanding the meaning of words and symbols
Treating Speech and Language Issues with Autism and ABA in Mind
Autism is typically evident before a child reaches the age of three. Speech and language delays can be recognizable as early as eighteen months of age. It is vital to begin therapy as early as possible, to have the most significant impact. Children with an autism diagnosis will receive referrals to an array of specialists, including a speech-language pathologist. Your child’s speech-language pathologist will perform a comprehensive evaluation of their abilities to communicate. Upon completion, your child’s team will meet and discuss individualized goals and create a course of treatment.
ABA therapy is also vital in the success of your child’s achievements and will significantly benefit your family. Your child’s ABA team will work alongside you to train and educate you on strategies. With your child’s entire ABA team, you will have the necessary resources to continue best practices at home and in all-natural environments.
Children with speech and language delays often require extra help and individual instruction. Speech-language pathologists work directly with you, your child, caregivers, and teachers. Addressing the needs of children with ASD through speech and language therapy improves their communication skills. It is essential to begin early intervention therapies, including ABA, to help them thrive and meet their full potential. While there are various approaches, the most effective therapy programs begin during their preschool years. Successful sessions tailor goals towards your child’s specific interests, as you will notice with ABA therapy. ABA and communication therapy sessions will address your child’s behaviors and communication skills through consistent modeling and positive reinforcement.
Children with autism typically respond better to a program with structure and predictable routines. Your child’s ABA team will work with you to develop a schedule to carry out strategies, so you are a part of your child’s daily treatment programs.
Some children with autism never develop oral speech and language skills. The goal for them may be learning primary forms of communication through gestures, including sign language. Other children may learn to communicate with a symbol system, using images to express themselves. A symbol system may range from using picture boards and cards to electronic devices that generate speech.
The Speech-Language Process: What to Expect
Speech-language pathologists are an essential part of your child’s autism treatment team. Your child will benefit from early screening by a speech therapist. Speech therapists are often the first source of recognizing and diagnosing autism and making necessary referrals to other specialists, including ABA therapists.
When your child first receives a diagnosis of autism, a speech therapist will complete a full assessment to determine a course of action. Enhancing your child’s quality of life is of the utmost importance. Throughout therapy sessions, their speech-language pathologist will work closely with your family, school, additional caregivers, and other ABA professionals to ensure everyone is on the same page, working towards their goals. Your child’s therapist may recommend the use of:
- Massage and exercise of their lips and facial muscles to improve articulation
- Electronic gadgets which “speak” for your child
- Signing or typing
- Picture boards, picture exchange communication systems, and other image-communication devices
Benefits of Speech Therapy for ASD
Speech therapy helps improve your child’s overall communication skills. This dramatically increases your child’s ability to form relationships, respond appropriately in situations, communicate wants and needs, and function to the best of their ability in daily life.
Specific goals of speech therapy for children with ASD you will become familiar with include:
- Articulation of words
- Communicate verbally and nonverbally
- Understand verbal and nonverbal communication
- Understanding the intentions of others in various settings
- Initiate communication without prompting
- Understand and recognize appropriate times and places to communicate and how to communicate
- Develop adequate conversational skills
- Ability to successfully exchange ideas
- Communicate in ways to develop relationships
- Communicate, play, and interact with peers and caregivers
- Learn to self-regulate
Additional Speech and Language Tips
Parents and caregivers are the first and most essential teachers during a child’s early years. Children quickly absorb and learn language by listening and practicing, so integrating ABA strategies is imperative. Help develop your child’s speech and language skills by:
- Responding to their sounds, gurgles, and gestures, even at infancy
- Repeat what they say and continue the conversation to introduce new words
- Talk about the world around them, pointing to what you see
- Ask questions and encourage responses
- Telling stories often
- Utilize songs and rhymes
- Encourage your child’s speech and language development by talking together – whether it’s things that interest your child or exploring new topics. Follow their lead and note what they may show you, point to, or babble about most.
- As your child learns new and helpful gestures, respond to their attempts to communicate with you. Repeat what they may be relaying and encourage confirmation.
- Utilize ABA best practices to encourage them to continue sharing through gestures. Use ABA positive reinforcements to reduce tantrums when frustration arises.
- Read to and with your child often. Select more complex books as your child progresses. Reading allows your child to hear different words in different contexts, helping them learn the meanings and functions of words.
- Relate books to what’s happening in your child’s life. This may be going to a doctor’s visit, getting a new pet, or learning about families. Encourage your child to point or talk about the images. It’s a great idea when browsing through photo albums of your family and encourages communication.
- When reading aloud with your child, point to pictures and words, and track them with your finger as you say them. Tracking helps your child form a connection between written and spoken words and enhances early literacy skills.
Finding Additional Resources
Your child may qualify for various speech and language delay and disorder programs. Talk with your child’s ABA team to find out what you may qualify for. Typically, a child under the age of three can qualify for early intervention special education services. Children three and older can qualify through their local school districts. School-age children typically receive referrals and testing through their home campuses and may undergo the schools’ testing for speech and language disorders.
Children with specific learning disabilities are eligible for special education services and accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504.
At Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center, we believe in an all-encompassing approach to providing your family with exceptional therapy, education, and support. We encourage you to visit our site for ABA information and additional resources and invite you to visit our highly trained team of professionals at our centers. We’re here to ensure your child thrives. Visit us today.