How does autism affect a child’s speech?

Autism awareness

Autism spectrum disorders can have a range of effects, some of which are to do with speech and language. Find out more here.

Autism spectrum disorders have a range of different symptoms, and every child dealing with this issue faces their own unique challenges. However, most people dealing with the condition have some kind of speech or language issue. Around a third of autistic people are nonverbal, and many others have problems communicating their needs to others.

It’s not always clear why a child with autism might be behaving how they are, especially when it comes to speech and language. What makes sense to them might be at odds with how you communicate, and their speech problems can make it hard to understand or talk to them. Here are the most typical things you might face:

Echolalia and repetition

Echolalia is the clinical term for repeated speech, and this is a common symptom of autism spectrum disorders. This can be instant, with autistic children repeating phrases back to you as soon as you say them, or it can be delayed. This often comes in the form of them using copied phrases from the past to communicate in the present.

For example, you might find them saying “Are you hungry?” when they want something to eat, based on you asking them the same question before then. This can be an effective way for them to shore up issues with their communication. You might find them repeating phrases from all sorts of sources, including schoolmates, TV and films.

Odd phrases

Sometimes children with autism spectrum disorders will say what seems like nonsense. Sometimes this can seem like a verbal tic. Maybe your child says “hello” or counts to three at random points in sentences, for example.

This can often be because autistic children have trouble matching up sounds and their meanings. However, it can also be linked to echolalia. For example, if your child repeats a phrase they have seen on TV, it might be that they’re trying to communicate something associated with the scene in which it was said. It might seem like nonsense, but there is a logic to it.

Uneven language skills

Autistic children can have very narrow sets of interests, and can become hyper-focused on certain areas of life over others. This can mean their development can be uneven, especially when it comes to speech and language. If your child is particularly fond of trains, for example, they might be able to name the parts of a steam engine but be unable to ask for a drink.

This can be helpful in some ways, as you can potentially use it as a way of communicating with your child. However, autistic children can struggle to focus on things outside their interests, so they may appear not to hear you if they are interacting with whatever their specialist subject is.

Poor nonverbal communication

Finally, nonverbal communication skills are usually lacking in autistic children. They can have trouble understanding things like body language, facial expressions, gestures and non-literal speech, such as idioms or metaphors. This can lead to them not understanding what they’re being told, causing them issues in communicating back to the person doing the telling.

For example, if you were to call your child a cheeky monkey with a smile on your face, most people would understand what you meant from context. An autistic child, on the other hand, might be confused about whether or not they’re in trouble, as ‘cheeky’ is usually a bad thing when taken literally and they might not register your smile.

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