What immediately comes to mind when you think about speech therapy for autism? Maybe you envision someone learning to enunciate words correctly or improve patterns of speech to help them communicate more effectively. While these kinds of interventions are included in many therapy plans, speech therapy can also help people with autism develop a broad range of communication skills that includes conversation, social interaction, non-verbal skills, and more.

Because autism is fundamentally a developmental condition, symptoms may include many kinds of communication issues, from the mechanics of speech to language acquisition and non-verbal communication. Children with autism may struggle with:

  • Language development
  • Using gestures instead of words
  • Not connecting gestures of others with their spoken words
  • Repeating words or sounds over and over (echolalia)
  • Speaking in sing-song rhythms
  • Using rigid phrases or language patterns
  • Not speaking at all
  • Lack of conversational skills
  • Difficulty understanding social cues
  • Minimal facial expressions

Speech therapy can help people with autism make improvements in all of these areas, enabling them to interact more effectively at home, at school, and in the community

What Speech Delays Are Associated with Autism?

The autism spectrum encompasses three broad levels. Children at Levels Two and Three require more support and intervention than those at Level One. With regard to speech and language, children at Level One may have average to above average language skills, while those at Level Three may not communicate verbally at all. Here’s what you might see in terms of language development at each level:

  • Level One: Children at this level have mild delays and require fewer interventions. They typically have strong language skills, but they may need help understanding conversational cues or practicing back-and-forth conversations.
  • Level Two: At this level, children may be either verbal or non-verbal. If they have verbal language skills, they often discuss only a narrow range of interests. They may have unusual speech patterns, use rigid words and phrases, or say the same thing again and again. Some children at this level may use gestures to communicate instead of words.
  • Level Three: Children with Level 3 autism will have significant speech and language delays. They may struggle with echolalia or have difficulty communicating at all. Many of these children are non-verbal and have strong difficulties interacting with others or understanding social situations.

How Can Speech Therapy for Autism Help Your Child?

The goal of speech therapy for autism is to improve broad communication ability, including verbal, non-verbal, and behavioral skills. Specific therapy approaches will depend on the extent of your child’s developmental needs. Let’s take a look at the kinds of interventions your child’s speech therapist may recommend:

  • Verbal Communication – If your child is verbal, the speech therapist can work with them to improve communication skills such as variety and rhythm of speech, use of words to describe emotions, correct enunciation, or correct vocabulary for things and people.
  • Non-Verbal Communication – Speech therapy can also help children develop non-verbal communication skills like gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions. If your child does not have verbal language ability, the therapist can help them learn to communicate through pictures or hand signals.
  • Communication Behaviors – Good communication includes more than just the words we use. A speech therapist can also help children with autism learn to interpret social situations, engage in back-and-forth conversation, or show interest in what another person is saying.

The needs and challenges of autism are unique to each child, and your child may struggle with some of these issues to a much greater degree than others. It is the speech therapist’s job to evaluate strengths and weaknesses so you can work together to build key skills.

One final note: research shows that the earlier children with autism begin therapy, the better. Early intervention is especially critical for children with Level 3 autism, but children at all levels will benefit from engaging in therapy as soon as possible. What should you do if your child received a diagnosis at a later age? Don’t worry! Therapy will still provide enormous benefits, so talk to your therapist about how you can work together to develop a plan.