PEOPLE with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have difficulties with speech, language and non-verbal communication. They may also find it very hard to interact socially. For these reasons, Speech-Language Therapists play an important role in the intervention and management of people with ASD. Speech-Language Therapy can address a wide range of communication problems for people with autism.
What are the common speech, language and communication problems experienced by people with ASD?
A person with ASD may:
•Not talk at all
•Utter grunts, cries, shrieks, or throaty, harsh sounds
•Hum or talk in a musical way
•Babble with word-like sounds
•Use foreign-sounding “words” or robotic-like speech
•Parrot or often repeat what another person says (called echolalia)
•Use the right phrases and sentences, but with an unexpressive tone of voice
•Trouble with conversational skills, which include eye contact and gestures
•Trouble understanding the meaning of words outside the context where they were learned
•Memorisation of things heard without knowing what’s been said
•Reliance on echolalia -- the repeating of another’s words as they are being said -- as the main way to communicate
•Little understanding of the meaning of words or symbols
•Lack of creative language
Because of these challenges, a child with ASD must do more than learn how to speak. The child also has to learn how to use language to communicate. This includes knowing how to hold a conversation. It also includes tuning into both verbal and nonverbal cues from other people -- such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
What role does Speech-Language Therapy play in the treatment of ASD?
Speech-Language Therapists specialise in treating language problems and speech disorders. They are an important member of the intervention team for people with ASD. With early screening and detection of people at risk, Speech-Language Therapists often lead the way in helping with the diagnosis of ASD and in making referrals to other specialists.
Once ASD is diagnosed, Speech-Language Therapists assess the best ways to improve communication and enhance a person’s quality of life. Throughout therapy, the Speech-Language Therapist also works closely with the family, school, and other professionals. If someone with ASD is nonverbal or has severe difficulty with speech, the Speech-Language Therapist may introduce Augmentative or Alternate Communication (AAC).
This may include:
•Electronic “talkers” or iPad Communication Apps
•Signing (e.g. Makaton)
•Using picture boards with words, known as picture communication systems that start out using pictures instead of words to help a child learn to communicate
•Having individuals sing songs composed to match the rhythm, stress, and flow of sentences
What are the benefits of Speech-Language Therapy for people with ASD?
Speech-Language Therapy can improve overall communication. This makes it possible for people with ASD to improve their ability to form relationships and function in day-to-day life.
The first step for any Speech-Language Therapist working with someone on the spectrum is to complete a comprehensive assessment of communication skills. Once the therapist has gained a clear understanding of where their client is with their communication skills development, the necessary support can be put in place.
Specific goals of Speech-Language Therapy may include:
•Articulating words well
•Communicating both verbally and nonverbally
•Comprehending verbal and nonverbal communication, understanding others’ intentions in a range of settings
•Initiating communication without prompting from others
•Knowing the appropriate time and place to communicate something; for example, when to say “good morning”
•Developing conversational skills
•Communicating in ways to develop relationships
•Enjoying communicating, playing, and interacting with peers
Speech-Language Therapists also provide advice and support, to help families and people with ASD to use visual supports such as visual timetables or organisers, in order to help with organisation and planning of daily activities.
When is the best time to start Speech-Language Therapy for ASD?
The earlier, the better! ASD is usually evident before age three, and language delays can be recognised as early as 18 months of age. In some cases, ASD can be identified as early 10 to 12 months of age. It is very important to start Speech-Language Therapy as early as possible, when it can have the greatest impact. Intensive, individualised treatment can help lessen the disabling isolation that may result from this social communication disorder.
A Personal Perspective
Autism Spectrum Disorder is an area of particular interest to me. I have gained a number of years of experience in working with children with ASD at the Stanger Training Centre (School for learners with special education needs). I have also completed additional training, in specialised intervention strategies for people with ASD. In January 2016, I started a private Speech-Language Therapy practice, which services the Tongaat, Ballito, Stanger and Darnall areas. I currently work with a number of children with ASD, with a team approach to intervention.
There are two very important aspects I have learnt while working with children with ASD. The first is to always PRESUME COMPETENCE – always approach the child with a positive attitude and never underestimate their ability or potential. The second, is that “non-verbal” does not mean “low functioning”. Unfortunately this is a common misconception.
When a child with ASD is unable to communicate verbally, using words and sentences, people often assume that the child is intellectually impaired, unable to understand anything or unable to learn. However, once a child is given the opportunity to communicate via an alternate means (signs, pictures or electronic devices), we then see the true understanding and learning potential of the child.
If you feel that your child may present with any of the communication difficulties outlined above, please contact:
M: 082 265 0045