Often autistic children have language delays. Receptive language is the ability to understand information provided by other people, either verbally or in writing. Expressive language is the ability to put our own thoughts into words, both spoken and written. Speech therapy can help your child learn these valuable skills.
Autistic children might have a language delay, meaning their communication skills are not developing as expected. This delay can affect the receptive or expressive language and, in some situations, both. When the child does not follow a typical developmental pattern, all areas of their learning and development are impacted.
Language delays add to the complexity of ASD
Language delays add to the complexity of an autism diagnosis, having a negative impact on socialization and academic performance.
When a child has poor language abilities, she might find it hard to interact with peers. Children rely on verbal cues to play and take part in games, not to mention they need to understand language to follow instructions. The struggle is complex. The child cannot use expressive language to convey her thoughts. In addition, she might have a hard time understanding explanations or directions.
Receptive language disorder
When receptive language is delayed, the ability to understand words and associated concepts suffers. During the initial assessment, the therapist will determine the level of comprehension and establish an intervention plan.
Receptive language disorder is common in autistic children, affecting their ability to understand spoken language. The child might not follow directions, answer questions, or identify various objects. she might not understand gestures and their reading comprehension might suffer.
How does therapy help?
The speech-language pathologist can help the autistic child improve her receptive language. After identifying areas of need, the S-LP will use strategies to increase the level of comprehension. During therapy the S-LP will work on expanding comprehension, identifying pictures, following instructions and more. Progress will result in a higher level of independence and participation in activities of daily living.
Expressive language disorder
Many autistic children have difficulties in expressing their thoughts using words. Very often the expressive language is more affected than the receptive. Thus, the speech-language pathologist will concentrate on helping the child with the production of sounds and words. Visual support might facilitate the learning process.
Initially, the therapist will assess the child’s ability to use spoken language. She will also assess the child’s non-verbal communication. Based on the identified weaknesses, she will develop an intervention plan.
Autistic children who suffer from an expressive language disorder might have difficulties communicating their wants and needs. For instance, they might not say when they are hungry or if they need to use the toilet. Common struggles include using appropriate gestures and facial expression, correct choice of words and asking questions.
How does therapy help?
The S-LP will work to improve expressive language. During therapy, she will use strategies to teach the child to communicate her wants and needs. As therapy progresses the child will learn to express more complex thoughts and ideas.
The therapist might also use an augmentative and alternative communication system (AAC) to increase the expression of thoughts and feelings. Some examples are PECS, high-tech systems (LAMP etc) or even sign language. For more information about AAC read this blog post.
Mixed receptive and expressive language disorder
It can happen that both the expressive and receptive language abilities are impacted. In this situation, the speech-language pathologist will have to work on both areas, helping the child progress towards greater ease of communication. The earlier one starts intervention, the better the outcome is likely to be.
The most important thing to remember is that language impairments become visible as early as the first two years of life, when one can still take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity. Parents should be active in the intervention process, as they need how to communicate with their child and meet her on her level.
Patience is key in working to develop language abilities in autistic children. In the beginning, prompting and offering instructions in multiple steps might be highly beneficial. Also, one should provide the child with adequate time to respond. Visual supports can be useful in helping the child overcome any existing challenges and even to establish long-term communication.
You can read about language development milestones here.