Speech Therapy’s Role in Assisting Children with Autism

If you are the parent of a child who has been diagnosed with autism, or suspect he or she may fall on the autism spectrum but have not yet received a diagnosis, the symptoms your child is exhibiting may be treatable. Many autistic children, for instance, have difficulties with communication, which can be improved with the help of a speech-language pathologist (SLP)

Speech therapy isn’t just about assisting with a child’s articulation. It can involve verbal and nonverbal communication skills, interacting and dialoging with others, and more. What’s key is that these skills be addressed early.

“Early intervention with these kids makes the most dramatic impact,” said Jennifer Pollock, CCC-SLP, CLC, a speech-language pathologist and certified lactation counselor with Memorial Outpatient Rehab Services. “Identifying and diagnosing these children at an early age is beneficial for them to attain therapy.”

What is a speech therapist?

Speech therapists do not diagnose a child — diagnosis typically occurs with a developmental pediatrician or developmental child psychiatrist — but they are well-equipped to help address the communication symptoms often tied to autism, such as difficulty at producing language (vocabulary and grammar problems), expressing or interpreting nonverbal communication and understanding the two-way flow of the communication process.

“A lot of people don’t realize that speech therapy is such a vast, wide area that looks at the language, what the kids are understanding, how they are processing what others are saying, and more,” she said.

What issues does speech therapy help?

Common issues that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) see in children with autism or autism-like symptoms include:

  • A child who is too overwhelmed, or at times underwhelmed, by their sensory system that they cannot interact and communicate with people appropriately.
  • A child who has difficulty processing parts of a sentence, such as “not” sentences. These children may not hear or understand the negative — such as in the sentence, “We are not going to the park today.” — and focus only on the noun and incorrectly set an expectation that won’t happen, which leads to behavioral or temper problems. “Parents, grandparents or teachers may tend to look at these kids throwing a fit, but it’s just that they truly don’t understand,” Pollock said.
  • A child who has a hard time with pragmatic language skills, or understanding how the communication process works. They may not be able to read another person’s facial expressions to determine if they are happy, angry or sad; have difficulty taking turns; or monopolize conversations.
  • A child who exhibits delayed or immediate echolalia, meaning he “parrots” back to you something he’s heard elsewhere, such as in a movie or TV show, or immediately repeats back something you say because he is unable to appropriately form his own thoughts. Oftentimes these responses are not appropriate for the situation and occur over and over again.
  • A child who has difficulty processing questions unless it’s about something very concrete. Situational or hypothetical questions — such as, “Where would you go to eat a hamburger?” — are hard to answer because the child can’t switch his focus to think about something currently outside his realm.

How does speech therapy teach communication skills?

In many of these instances, role-playing with the therapist and within social groups with other children of similar abilities works well in helping the child understand how to better communicate with others. But Pollock noted that the skills a child learns in therapy (which also can include occupational therapy, physical therapy and feeding therapy, if warranted) need to be developed in all areas of a child’s life with the help of their support system.

“We really need everyone involved in the child’s life so we can generalize therapy into other situations and translate what they are doing in therapy to real life,” Pollock said. “We have to lay a whole lot of groundwork to help them be more functional in their day-to-day activities, but with family support, with the school’s support and with therapy support, all of these things can work together to help make a child the best they can be.

“We are almost always able to make progress.  Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it does happen.”