Autism is a developmental disability that usually shows up before age 3. Autism may be linked with a wide range of traits. These include:
Extreme resistance to changes in daily routines
Unusual responses to things such as touch
Inability to interact with environment
People with autism may have major problems with both speech and nonverbal communication. They may also find it very hard to interact socially. For these reasons, speech therapy is a central part of treatment for autism. Speech therapy can address a wide range of communication problems for people with autism.
When my daughter Mary was diagnosed with autism in 1995,” says actor Gary
Cole, “all I had to go on was Rain Man.” Today, an
estimated one in 150 American children under age 8 are diagnosed with autism or
related conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome -- all with symptoms such as an
inability to relate to others, the insistence on rigid routines, and engaging
in repetitive behaviors. “It seems you can ask any friend, any relative,” says
Cole, “and they’ll be able to tell you about someone...
Utter grunts, cries, shrieks, or throaty, harsh sounds
Hum or talk in a musical way
Babble with word-like sounds
Use foreign-sounding "words" or robotic-like speech
Parrot or often repeat what another person says (called echolalia)
Use the right phrases and sentences, but with an unexpressive tone of voice
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.
Communication problems. A person with autism may have one or more of these communication challenges:
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 -- the repeating of another's words as they are being said -- as the main way to communicate
Little understanding of the meaning of words or symbols
Lack of creative language
Because of these challenges, a child with autism must do more than learn how to speak. The child also has to learn how to use language to communicate. This includes knowing how to hold a conversation. It also includes tuning into both verbal and nonverbal cues from other people -- such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
What role does speech therapy play in the treatment of autism?
Speech-language pathologists are therapists who specialize in treating language problems and speech disorders. They are a key part of the 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. If someone with autism is nonverbal or has major trouble with speech, the speech therapist may introduce alternatives to speech.
Speech therapy techniques might include:
Signing or typing
Using picture boards with words, known as picture exchange communication systems that start out using pictures instead of words to help a child learn to communicate
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
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.