Many parents of children with autism are told that if their child isn’t speaking by about age 4 or 5, he or she is not likely to ever do so. However, a study in the journal Pediatrics contradicts that theory, finding that speech delays can be overcome in children with an ASD.
Delayed speech or delayed language development is the most common developmental problem. It affects five to ten percent of preschool kids. Autism is one of the many conditions that can cause speech and language problems and is usually one of the first signs parents notice in their toddlers.
Researchers with the Kennedy Krieger’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Baltimore studied data on 535 children, ages 8 to 17, diagnosed with autism and with severe language delays at age 4. The delays ranged from not speaking at all to using single words or phrases without verbs. Data was collected using the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), a standard parent interview that identifies children with an ASD, and the Autism Diagnosis Observations Schedule (ADOS), a clinician-administered observation that assesses social and communicative behaviors.
The team, led by Ericka L. Wodka PhD, a neuropsychologist, found that most of the children did go on to acquire language skills. Nearly half (47 percent) became fluent speakers (defined as the ability to use complex words to talk about topics outside of the immediate physical context) and over two-thirds could speak in simple phrases (non-echoed three word utterances that are meaningful word combinations) by age eight.
Those with higher IQ’s, assessed using nonverbal tests, and lower social impairment were more likely to overcome their language difficulties. "Children with typical nonverbal intelligence attained language almost six months ahead of those with scores below the average," notes Dr. Wodka.
Interestingly, other autistic behaviors, such as repetitive behaviors and restricted interests, were not factors in language development.
“These findings offer hope to parents that their language-delayed child will go on to develop speech in elementary school, or even as teenagers,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson PhD. “By highlighting important predictors of language acquisition – especially the role of nonverbal cognitive and social skills – this also suggests that targeting these areas in early intervention will help to promote language.”
The University of Michigan Health System offers tips for parents to encourage language development in children with speech delays:
o Start talking to your child at birth. Even newborns benefit from hearing speech.
o Respond to your baby’s coos and babbling.
o Play simple games with your baby like peek-a-boo and patty-cake.
o Listen to your child. Look at them when they talk to you. Give them time to respond. (It feels like an eternity, but count to 5—or even 10—before filling the silence).
o Describe for your child what they are doing, feeling and hearing in the course of the day.
o Encourage storytelling and sharing information.
o Don’t try to force your child to speak.
o Read books aloud. Ask a librarian for books appropriate to your child’s age. If your baby loses interest in the text, just talk about the pictures.
o Sing to your child and provide them with music. Learning new songs helps your child learn new words, and uses memory skills, listening skills, and expression of ideas with words.
o Expand on what your child says. (For example, if your child says, “Elmo!”, you can say, “You want Elmo!”)
o Talk a lot to your child. Tell them what you are doing as you do it.
o Plan family trips and outings. Your new experiences give you something interesting to talk about before, during, and after the outing.
o Look at family photos and talk about them.
o Answer your child every time they speak—this rewards them for talking.
o Ask your child lots of questions.
o Use gestures along with words.
o Don’t criticize grammar mistakes. Instead, just model good grammar.
o Play with your child one-on-one, and talk about the toys and games you are playing.
o Follow your child’s lead, so you are doing activities that hold their interest as you talk.
o Have your child play with kids whose language is a little better than theirs.
Ericka L. Wodka, Pamela Mathy, and Luther Kalb. Predictors of Phrase and Fluent Speech in Children With Autism and Severe Language Delay. Pediatrics, March 4, 2013 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-2221
University of Michigan Health System: Speech and Language Delay and Disorder