Challenges with language are a main characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and can interfere with a child’s ability to successfully communicate and interact with others. Because all children with ASD are different, the type and intensity of communication difficulties varies from child to child. Some children, for example, have extremely limited language skills, while others have extensive vocabulary and the ability to talk in detail about certain subjects.
What are common ASD-related language challenges?
Repetitive or Rigid Communication
In conversation, children with ASD may repeat words they know or have heard, even when these words are not relevant to the topic.
They may also mimic language (rather than use it correctly) to get their needs met. For example, they may say: “Are you hungry?” rather than “I’m hungry,” because they’ve connected a parent saying “are you hungry” to being fed.
Echolalia, or repeating words or phrases, is also common. Immediate echolalia occurs when a child repeats something immediately after hearing it. For example, if a caregiver asks the child: “Do you want this toy?” the child responds with, “Do you want this toy?” Delayed echolalia, on the other hand, is repeating something they heard in the past. For example, a child may repeat a catchy phrase from a TV commercial in conversation or simply out of the blue.
Children with ASD may also blurt out irrelevant words in conversation. They may be single words, phrases, or something like counting to five.
Narrow Interests and Exceptional Abilities
Some children with autism have an extreme interest in a certain subject, and can recite a monologue about it. It’s difficult for them, though, to have a back-and-forth conversation about the topic. An estimated 10% of children with ASD display “savant” skills, such as an exceptional ability to memorize information or do calculations.
Uneven Language Development
Many children with ASD develop language skills, but often to varying degrees and at an uneven pace. For example, a child may learn to read within a normal age range, but struggle to comprehend the information. Or they may develop a rich vocabulary in a certain topic, but lack vocabulary in others. Some have a strong memory for what they hear or see.
Difficulty in Back-and-Forth Conversation
It’s common for children with ASD to have a hard time engaging in or carrying on a conversation. They may not respond to their own name, or to comments or questions in a conversation.
Poor Nonverbal Skills
Children with ASD often have a hard time (or lack the ability altogether) understanding nonverbal cues from others such as facial expressions, gestures, or body language. They may also struggle to use nonverbal cues themselves. In fact, issues with sensory processing may interfere with their ability to express interest with their eyes. They may signal that they’re interested in something by squealing or simply turning their head, for example.
What are common language interventions for children with ASD?
Functional Communication Training
Functional Communication Training (FCT) must be performed by a trained professional, such as a speech-language pathologist or a psychologist. FCT aims to help children with ASD learn how to minimize behavioral issues arising from frustration over not being able to effectively communicate. It involves teaching children to use signs or images to express their feelings, thoughts, and needs.
The success of FCT depends on a child’s cognitive level; it may come more easily to some than others. For more high-functioning children with ASD, FCT can help them reach communication levels that are on par with their typically-developing peers.
A speech-language pathologist (SLP) who is trained to work with ASD can use various interventions, over time, to help children improve communication skills. Speech-language therapy is most likely to be effective if: 1) It starts early (before age 3); 2) Therapy activities involve the child’s interests; and 3) The parents are heavily involved in the treatment plan so that therapy continues at home.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
If you have or care for a child with ASD, it’s important to:
- Understand and track language milestones (our BabySparks development program is a great tool for this).
- Engage your child frequently to practice communication skills: Read, tell stories, and initiate conversation (if your child isn’t using words, use sounds, images, gestures, facial expressions, and other nonverbal language).
- Before engaging with your child, be sure you have his attention. Physically move to his level and into his line of vision. Use a word or phrase that indicates that it’s important for him to listen to you, like, “Listen, please.”
- When you ask your child a question, give him time to formulate his thoughts and respond.
- If your child starts talking about something without providing context, ask clarifying questions.
- Use visual tools, such as schedules.
- Be very specific in your statements: This is a picture of a plant (rather than this is a plant).
- Be aware of using idioms your child might not understand, and translate them into concrete language.
Above all, be sure to follow your child’s language therapist’s lead! Ask for clear guidance about how to encourage language practice and support therapy goals at home.