The way in which autism affects a child's speech varies greatly. They may or may not develop 'typical language' but most children do go on to form some form of communication. Some children do remain non-verbal, whereas other children have extremely eloquent language. This article will go through some of the things we can do to improve oral speech in autistic children.
Typical Speech Development
All children have the ability to learn to communicate, and signs of typical communication can start from just a few months old with the use of facial expressions and babbling. This then typically progresses into the use of words and then into simple sentences. Learning to communicate is done through observation, repetition and practice. Therefore, as children repeatedly experience the same situations, such as mealtimes or play times, they will hear language associated with those situations and eventually learn to express themselves using this language.
The Importance of Oral Language
We all need to be able to talk and listen in order to be able to socialise, express needs or wants, communicate ideas and share feelings. We talk and listen far more than we read or write in our day-to-day life and we use oral language in a wide range of social contexts such as playing, working, learning, mealtimes etc. Language is all around us.
Language skills are also associated with a child's development in their reasoning, problem solving, decision making and many other aspects of higher functioning behaviours. This is why it is so important to provide additional support to children who have delays or struggles with their language development, such as children who are autistic.
Autism & Language
Autistic children might have difficulty learning language because they tend to show less interest in other people in the first 12 months of life. They might be more focused on other things going on around them and trying to process other sensory information. They might not need or want to communicate with other people as much as typically developing children do, therefore they don’t get as many chances to develop their language skills.
One of the hallmarks of autism is delayed language development, and my partner, Vincent, also experienced this and did not speak until he was 4. He now communicates perfectly well, in fact very eloquently, but when I asked about why he was quiet as a child he explained;
It wasn't that I didn't know how to speak, I just didn't want to. I was afraid and speaking would often lead to social situations that I didn't know how to navigate.
Top 5 Tips to Improve Speech in Autistic Children
1. Interpret all vocalisations and behaviour as forms of communication
Any vocalisations should be accepted as attempts to communicate and you should try to learn what each sound means rather than trying to make the child "use their words". Just like with newborns, we learn to recognise what cries mean they're hungry and which ones mean they're tired or wet etc. - the same logic applies to different vocal sounds a child with autism may make.
You should also look for behavioural signals which may help you interpret what they need. For example, if they take your hand and guide you to the snack cupboard, chances are that is what they want. We should always see behaviour, positive or negative, as a form of communication. When a child displays challenging behaviour, this is clearly communicating that they are overstimulated, distressed or dysregulated.
2. Create reasons to use language
If a child is presented with a safe opportunity to use language, chances are they will try to use it. Therefore, you can create opportunities for a child to use language in your everyday activities or lessons. For example, if reading a picture book together, especially one with flaps or interactive elements, you could lift one of the flaps and say, "Oh it's a..." and then pause. Be sure to pause long enough for the child to say something. As the child learns, you can make the activities gradually harder. For example, you could start with your child just saying ‘ball’ when they want you to give them the ball. The next step might be saying ‘push the ball’.
3. Teaching through play
Children learn best through play and learning language is no exception. The repetition of fun, enjoyable activities can help children expand their vocabularies and improve their speech. You could spend time playing matching games, signing nursery rhymes or songs or doing jigsaws - all of these activities require cooperation and therefore cooperative language.
4. Model Language
You can show a child how to respond or ask for something by modelling the language that should be used. Modelling involves speaking and using facial expressions and gestures in front of the child and giving them examples of what you want them to learn, at a level that’s right for them.
For example, you could comment on what you’re doing, like saying ‘open’ as you open the classroom door. You can also comment on what your child is doing, like saying ‘stuck’ as your child tries to open a zipper on a bag. If a child is trying to say something, you can model the words that you think they need, like ‘help’ as the child holds up a packet of food that they can’t open.
It’s best to use phrases that contain 1-2 more words than the child is currently using in their own speech. For example, if a child isn’t yet talking, model 1-2 word sentences. If a child is speaking in 2-3 word sentences, repeat what they say but add a couple more words to show your child how to build bigger sentences.
5. Reward and Be Patient
You can reward your child when they listen, understand or express themselves. You could do this by using a natural consequence like giving your child the next piece of the puzzle when they make a request, or smiling and making a comment to let your child know you’re interested when they show you a toy.
It may take a while for your child’s vocabulary to grow. You may go over the same word using the same games and activities many, many times. Don’t worry, that’s normal. In the meantime, focus on understanding your child’s intent with their current means of communication.
Children develop at their own pace.The most important thing is to respect and balance their needs so that learning doesn’t become a struggle. While you want them to get ahead, you don’t want them to develop negative associations or undue stress with trying to do so.