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Benefits of Speech Therapy for Autism

Autism is a developmental disability that usually shows up before age 3. Autism may be linked with a wide range of traits. These include:

  • Repetitive activities
  • 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.

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Understanding Autism -- Symptoms

A child with autism spectrum disorder may have problems in three different areas -- socializing, communicating, and behavior.   Each child with an autism spectrum disorder will have his or her own individual pattern of behavior: Sometimes, a child's development is delayed from birth; other children develop normally before suddenly losing social or language skills. In some children, a loss of language is the impairment; in others, unusual behaviors (like spending hours lining up toys) predominate...

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What are the common speech and communication problems with autism?

Autism can affect speech, language development, and social communication in many ways.

Speech problems. A person with autism may:

  • Not talk at all
  • 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:

  • Electronic "talkers"
  • 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.

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