Communication involves speaking, gesturing or pointing, and using sign language. Communication begins before a child learns to talk! In the case of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the development of communication may happen slowly. Children with ASD may not babble even when they are 8-months old. Young kids on the spectrum may not imitate sounds at all.
Autism and Speech-Communication Problems
Speech delays and communication problems are two of the defining traits of ASD. However, the speech and language problems that children with ASD face vary in type and intensity. There may be one or multiple contributing factors even for one individual.
The ability of a child with ASD to use language for communication depends upon their social and intellectual development.
While most children with autism talk, they may speak or converse differently than their neurotypical peers. Some of these differences lie in the production and use of spoken language. Other differences lie in understanding social cues during conversations.
It may be due to their natural tendency to not pay attention to spoken language. Even when they are paying attention, many children have difficulty deciphering what the sounds (words) mean and how they translate to thoughts or ideas.
Pragmatic Speech Delays in Children with Autism
Children with autism spectrum disorder may experience pragmatic speech delays or social communication disorders.
According to ASHA, social communication or pragmatics has three active components –
1. Using language in the form of demands, requests, information, promises, and greetings.
2. Modifying language according to the reactions of the listener, or situation. For example, neurotypicals can alter their language while talking to a baby immediately after talking to an adult.
3. Following the rules of conversations such as taking turns to speak, staying on topic, using verbal and nonverbal signals, and relying on facial expression and eye contact.
Speech and Communication Challenges in Children with Autism
Autism delays the development of pragmatic speech in children. Children with nonspeaking autism struggle to use spoken language. However, children with nonspeaking ASD and high-functioning ASD require help developing pragmatic language.
It is common for children with ASD to not understand facial expressions, non-verbal cues, and turn taking. The characteristics of autistic speech may differ significantly from one person to another.
Here are some of the most common but significant speech and communication challenges kids on the spectrum face –
1. Children with ASD may seem inappropriately louder or quieter than expected.
2. They may repeat part of or complete sentences from TV shows, movies and videos.
3. Kids may speak in a monotone voice or an unusually high pitch.
4. Individuals with ASD may speak on a seemingly off-topic subject.
5. They may dominate a conversation when they chance upon a subject/topic of interest.
6. They may repeat the same sentence, phrases or words over and over again. For example, someone may say “that’s grand” in response to everything said to them repeatedly.
7. Children with ASD may not understand when they should be a part of a conversation and may leave before the discussion ends.
8. Most individuals with autism have poor understanding of sarcasm, idioms, and expressions, such as “a needle in a haystack”.
9. They use language that may be considered inappropriate in a situation. For example, they say something informal in a formal situation or try to be silly in a serious situation.
10. It is common for children to ask rhetorical questions. They may ask questions only to share their own opinions or ideas.
11. Children with ASD may frequently face difficulty in engaging in small-talk that is considered a necessary part of social interactions.
Children with ASD: Common Patterns of Spoken Language
Autism is a spectrum disorder because it has a range of signs and symptoms. Therefore, children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder and Asperger’s syndrome may not face the communication challenges we have mentioned above.
Some may have a clear understanding of spoken language, but limited speaking skills. While others may have an impressive vocabulary and a good grasp on spoken language.
Below are some of the patterns of spoken language commonly observed in children on the spectrum –
1. They May Use Repetitive And Rigid Language
Children with ASD may repeat phrases or sentences that appear to have no meaning. For example, a child may repeat the first line of a nursery rhyme throughout a conversation.
It is also common for children to repeat phrases or parts of sentences they have heard during a conversation. Experts refer to this as echolalia. For example – a child may respond to a question by asking the same question.
In delayed echolalia, a child repeats a sentence or phrase they have heard earlier. The child may say, “Do you want to watch TV?” whenever they want to watch TV.
Children with ASD may speak in a sing-song or robotic voice. Or, they may use “stock phrases” to begin a conversation. For example, a child may repeatedly say “Hi, my name’s Max” before beginning any dialogue with friends or family.
2. Uneven Development Of Language
Several children with ASD develop speech and language skills slowly, but the process is uneven. For example, they may show a robust vocabulary only in a particular area of interest. Or, they may have an excellent memory for things they hear. Some may even be able to read before their fifth birthday.
However, they may not respond to their own names being called or others’ speeches. In many cases, parents believe their children have hearing disabilities.
3. Delayed Nonverbal Communication Skills
Children with ASD may have poor or underdeveloped nonverbal communication skills. Many children are unable to use simple gestures. For example, they may not be able to point to the bottle if they want a drink of water.
Most individuals with ASD shy away from eye contact.
Without the help of gestures, signs and other nonverbal skills to enhance their oral skills, these children often struggle to express or share their feelings, thoughts and needs.
Symptoms May Vary Throughout The Spectrum
Children with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism may have an expansive vocabulary. They may be able to communicate using long sentences.
However, they may not always excel at social communication. Social communication requires more than speech skills. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and eye contact are integral parts of social communication.
Even the brightest children with high-functioning autism face problems with social communication due to difficulty in maintaining eye contact, or following non-verbal cues. Children with ASD may find it difficult to make new friends and interact with peers belonging to the same age group.