Autism and The Importance of Speech Therapy

Brook Price with her autistic son

Many people with Autism have major problems with both speech and nonverbal communication. It simply eludes them. My son had obvious issues with speech and nonverbal communication right from the beginning. Being nonverbal until the age of almost 7 years I had to find ways to connect with him outside of speaking, as well as do whatever I could to harness speech within him. It was the most tiring and rewarding task I had with him growing up, I just wanted to hear him speak; wanted him to be social. Furthermore, Autistic individuals may also find it very hard to interact socially. Zain still has social deficits. For these reasons, speech therapy is a central part of treatment for Autism. It was central, and still is central, to my son’s development as he receives speech therapy twice a week.

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Speech therapy can address a wide range of communication problems for people with Autism. Speech therapy is systematically designed to synchronize the mechanics of speech with the meaning and social use of language. Per WebMD, “about one out of three people with Autism has trouble producing speech sounds to effectively communicate with others. The person's language, if present, is simply too hard to understand.” Autism can affect speech, language development, and social communication in many ways. It isn’t always the nonverbal children that are in need extra help, despite popular belief by some. High Functioning and Moderate Autism are just as difficult to live with as Severe Autism is; they also require some degree of Speech Therapy at some point of time in a child’s life, in most cases.

At the core of Speech Therapy is the Speech Therapist. “Speech-language pathologists are therapists who specialize in treating language problems and speech disorders. They are a key part of any Autism treatment team. With early screening and detection of people at risk, speech therapists often lead the way in helping with the diagnosis of Autism and in making referrals to other specialists.” Once Autism is diagnosed, speech therapists assess the best ways to improve communication and enhance a person's quality of life. Throughout therapy, the speech-language pathologist also “works closely with the family, school, and other professionals.”

“Specific goals of Speech Therapy Include Helping the Individual with Autism with:

-Articulating words well
-Communicating both verbally and nonverbally
-Comprehending verbal and nonverbal communication and understanding others' intentions in a range of settings
-Initiating communication without prompting from others
-Knowing the appropriate time and place to communicate something; for example, when to say "Good Morning"
-Developing conversational skills
-Exchanging ideas
-Communicating in ways to develop relationships
-Simply enjoying communicating, playing, and interacting with peers
-Learning to self-regulate”

How does Autism Affect Speech?

Autism affects a person’s speech in many different ways. A person with Autism may “not talk at all or they may utter grunts, cries, shrieks, or throaty, harsh sounds. Autism can express itself in the form of humming or talking in a musical way. They may also babble with word-like sounds or use foreign-sounding "words" or robotic-like speech. One popular way that Autism affects a person’s speech is them being prone to “speaking like a parrot” or often repeating what another person says (called an echolalia) as their way of communicating. They may also use the right phrases and sentences, but with an unexpressive tone of voice.” This obviously leads to communication and social problems.

Per reports, a person with Autism “may have one or more of these communication challenges:

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-Trouble with conversational skills, which include eye contact and gestures
-Trouble understanding the meaning of words outside the context where they were learned
-Memorization of things heard without knowing what's been said
-Reliance on echolalia
-Little understanding of the meaning of words or symbols
-Lack of creative language”

Because of all these challenges, a child with Autism must do more than learn how to speak; the child also must learn how to use language to communicate. This includes knowing how to hold a conversation. One of the big things that people forget about, or simply do not consider when they think about Autism is that these individuals not only have to learn how to speak, they also have to learn how to “tune into both verbal and nonverbal cues from other people, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.” This doesn’t just come naturally to most individuals that are diagnosed with an ASD as it does for a “normal person.” Speech Therapy is key to helping them not only learn how to speak, but in learning how to use said speech effectively in life.

But My Child is Non-Verbal, Can Speech Really Help?

Per reports, “a non-verbal person with Autism can benefit from a variety of “augmentative and alternative communicative (AAC) devices and methods. The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is among the most commonly used with children and adults who have little or no verbal ability.” Therapists, teachers and parents help the child or adult build a vocabulary and consistently articulate desires, observations and feelings through pictures. PECS is what I use with my son to develop his speech, in combination with at home Speech and ABA therapy. The PECS system can be taught to parents for use at home, or it can be used in the classroom and a variety of other settings.

“At the start of a PECS program, the instructor teaches the child or adult to exchange a picture for an object—for instance, a picture of an apple for an actual apple. With instruction, the person learns to distinguish pictures and symbols and use both to form sentences. Although PECS is based on visual tools, the program emphasizes and reinforces verbal communication.” If you are interested in using the PECS system with you child, it is suggested that caregivers purchase standard PECS images as a part of a manual or simply gather photos from everyday sources such as newspapers, magazines and books. Other augmentative and alternative communicative devices include specially programmed computers, iPads, and iPhones. All of which can be included in a child’s IEP to be implemented and used at school.

Other Speech therapy techniques might include:

-Signing or typing
-Using sounds to which a person is over- or under-sensitive to expand and compress speech sounds
-Improving articulation of speech by massaging or exercising lips or facial muscles
-Having individuals sing songs composed to match the rhythm, stress, and flow of sentences
(It is noted that some of these techniques are supported more by research than others. Be sure to discuss them thoroughly with the speech-language pathologist and your child's pediatrician.)

As Speech therapy can improve overall communication I’d say that it is key to the treatment of just about every child on the spectrum. “It makes it possible for people with Autism to improve their ability to form relationships and function in day-to-day life.”

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