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Speech-Language Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

​​Language development varies widely among children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Some are early talkers and never seem to run out of things to say. Others are naturally quiet and start speaking much later. However, social communication differences are core features of ASD. Many children with ASD will benefit from some form of speech- language therapy to enhance their communication skills.

What is social communication?

Some children with ASD face have challenges in communicating their wants and needs. Others may unintentionally be one-sided in their conversations and benefit by working on 2-way communication.

Teaching children with ASD to converse with others in social situations, also called pragmatic communication. Pragmatic language involves skills such as picking up on body language, maintaining eye contact, understanding implied meaning, using normal voice inflection and volume when speaking, maintaining the topic of conversation, and recognizing the interest level of others in what is being discussed. The extent of speech-language therapy varies from one child to the next and depends on the needs of the individual.

The exact services your child requires are determined after evaluation by a speech-language pathologist, often called a speech-language therapist. Therapy itself may be done individually, in a small-group setting, or in a classroom. However, therapy is most effective when it involves everyone—teachers, support staff, families, and even the child's peers—to encourage the child to practice speech and language skills in a natural setting throughout the day.

It's important to think of communication as being more than speech, especially because recent studies show that about 30% of individuals with ASD do not gain the skill of verbal speech.

Beyond verbal speech: augmentive communication

Because some children with ASD become frustrated about not being able to verbally communicate their wants and needs, they may benefit from augmentative communication—using gestures, sign language, or picture communi­cation programs. For example, your child may benefit from the Picture Exchange Communication System, a method that uses ABA principles to teach children with less-developed verbal abilities to communicate with pictures.

With guidance from a therapist, teacher, or parent, the child learns how to exchange a picture for an object and eventually learns to use pictures to express thoughts and desires. Eventually, the child learns to create sentences using more than one picture and to answer questions.

Introducing augmentative communication to children with ASD who are not yet using verbal communication does not keep them from learning to talk, and there is some evi­dence that they may be more stimulated to learn speech if they already understand something about symbolic communication. Augmentative communication may also include the use of electronic devices or applications, some of which have synthesized speech output.​

Last Updated
Adapted from Autism Spectrum Disorders: What Every Parent Needs to Know, 2nd Edition (Copyright © American Academy of Pediatrics 2019)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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