Speech and Language Treatment: Helping Children With Autism Connect to the World


Cindy Kuzma

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Trouble communicating is one of the hallmark symptoms of autism. In fact, as many as one-fourth of children with autism may never speak. Others can talk in detail about some subjects but struggle with the meaning of words and the construction of sentences in everyday conversation.

Even if your child is not verbal, speech therapy can help provide communication skills to help him or her navigate the world. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) uses a wide variety of techniques—including exercises that teach language skills, symbolic play, and electronic devices—to help children with autism develop the skills needed to interact with others.

In a recent assessment by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, two-thirds of preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders gained communication skills after a speech and language intervention. And another recent study found that, when incorporated into a personalized program that also included occupational therapy, social skills development, and parent-focused instruction, speech and language treatment improves communication skills in children with autism.

Start Early for Best Results

You don’t have to wait for a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder to begin speech and language therapy. In fact, early intervention—from birth to 3 years—can increase your child’s odds of communicating functionally. Getting intensive therapy, about 20 hours per week, seems to be the most effective.

However, even if your child is older and hasn’t yet begun speech and language treatment, it’s not too late. A recent research review found that more children with autism than previously thought can acquire language at age 5 or older. In addition, an SLP can teach your child to use symbols or other ways of communication.

Before beginning treatment, the SLP will perform a thorough evaluation of your child’s needs and skills. The therapist will design a treatment program that builds on your child’s strengths; coordinates with other care your child is receiving, such as occupational therapy; and fits into your family system.

10 Questions to Ask Your SLP

Speech therapy works best when you and other members of your child’s family and health care team participate and support it. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s SLP about the techniques used to treat your child, the evidence to support them, and what types of improvements you can expect.

Here are 10 questions to ask the SLP:

  1. What strengths does my child have? What communication challenges does my child face?

  2. What are the goals of my child’s speech-language intervention? Why are these goals priorities at this time?

  3. How will you help my child learn these new skills?

  4. Is there evidence that this approach is effective for children with autism who are like my child?

  5. How can I help my child communicate at home, at school, and in the community?

  6. How will the intervention be tailored to my child’s age and interests?

  7. Would my child benefit from sign language?

  8. Would my child benefit from computer technologies such as a speech generating device?

  9. How will you monitor my child’s progress? What’s the best way for us to work together and share information?

  10. Where can I find further support?

Write down the SLP’s answers, or ask if you can record the visit so you can play it back later. If anything is unclear, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. A good way to check your understanding is to tell the SLP in your own words what you think was said. Then, before leaving the office, make sure you know how to contact the SLP for any questions that come up after you get home.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Mar 2, 2016

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Medical References

  1. “Clinical and Research Perspectives on Nonspeech Oral Motor Treatments and Evidence-Based Practice.” N. Muttiah et al. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. February 2011, vol. 20, pp. 47–59.;
  2. “Evidence-Based Systematic Review: Effects of Nonspeech Oral Motor Exercises on Speech.” R. J. McCauley et al. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. November 2009, vol. 18, pp. 343–60.;
  3. “Interventions to Improve Communication.” R. Paul. Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America. October 2008, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 835-56.;
  4. “Nonspeech Oral Motor Treatment Issues Related to Children With Developmental Speech Sound Disorders.” D.M. Ruscello. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. July 2008, vol. 39, pp. 380–91.;
  5. “Speech Acquisition in Older Nonverbal Individuals With Autism: A Review of Features, Methods, and Prognosis.” E. Pickett et al. Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology. March 2009, vol. 22, no 1, pp. 1–21.;
  6. “The effect of a psycho-educational program on CARS scores and short sensory profile in autistic children.” A. S. Papavasiliou et al. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology. July 2011, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 338-44.;
  7. Pennylvania State University (http://aackids.psu.edu/index.php/page/show/id/3);
  8. Association for Science in Autism Treatment (http://www.asatonline.org/intervention/treatments/oral.htm);
  9. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (http://www.asha.org/NJC/faqs-disabilities.htm);
  10. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (http://www.asha.org/public/EfficacySummaries/);
  11. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/aphasia.htm);
  12. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/autismSLPbenefits.htm);
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.html);
  14. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communcation Disorders (http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/asd.cfm);
  15. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communcation Disorders (http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/funding/programs/10autism/Pages/Default.aspx);

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