Autism is a broad term that actually describes a wide spectrum of symptoms. A child with autism may be mostly nonverbal or they may be verbal but find communicating with others to be quite difficult. The range of speech in children diagnosed with autism is quite wide. Speech therapy can help children at both ends of the spectrum. A person with autism who is quite verbal may have a very difficult time comprehending the complex nuances within language. A nonverbal patient can learn to communicate without, or with limited speech, and with time may improve their spoken skill to a level where they can communicate with people more easily.
The type of speech therapy the child will engage in depends entirely on their developmental abilities. If a child is non-verbal, the therapist may use body language, sign language, imitation, or graphic representations, which can help children communicate before they are able to speak fluently. A child who has, and is able to use, a wide variety of words may need more help with conversation skills such as being able to take turns when talking to people or knowing what type of response is most appropriate in a given situation. A child who is learning to take turns may practice with role playing or with a scripted storyline, such as a play. This makes the experience both fun and educational as the child learns the importance of waiting his or her turn to say their line. A child who is not sure of the appropriate responses may need help with emotional context such as knowing to say “I’m sorry” if someone is hurt.
One of the most important things to remember about autism and speech therapy is that early intervention is best. As soon as possible, a child who has been diagnosed with autism needs to be working with a speech therapist familiar with the various levels of autism. Children who receive early intervention are more likely to acquire language skills. However, even children who start speech therapy at a later point in their development will still benefit.
For parents, one of the most difficult aspects of having a child with autism is not being able to communicate effectively with them. The uncertainty of what the child wants, or doesn’t want, is especially frustrating. Also, a parent who is trying to make themselves understood but is having no success may become frustrated with the child and begin to shut down and stop trying to communicate. This will lead to both the parent and the child being upset and frustrated. Speech therapy doesn’t just teach the autistic child to communicate with the world. It also teaches the child’s parents, siblings, and other relatives to communicate more effectively with them.
How do you help your patients with autism, and their families, learn to communicate more effectively?