For many families and their children with autism, it can be a long road for developing functional communication skills. One of the primary symptoms of autism spectrum disorder is a language/communication/social delay. The levels can vary and the disconnect can interrupt the learning or acquisition of new words and using those new words. For example, a child without a disability can learn a new word and use it appropriately after approximately a dozen times or less versus a child with a disability may take hundreds of times or more to learn and use that same word appropriately.
To tackle this obstacle, a speech-language pathologist will use a variety of interventions to improve the language acquisition and use skills. This is done by following the child’s lead, a child following the clinician’s lead, and joint work overall together. A speech-language pathologist understands thoroughly the natural development of language and how to facilitate this learning of communication. It is vital to continue the ongoing therapy process while the brain and body are still developing.
A speech-language pathologist has the goal to build or improve communication skills for a child with autism. This goal includes children who are not verbal and are verbal.
For children who are nonverbal this can include learning alternative methods to communicate. These other methods can be the use of picture symbols or special apps on an electronic device. Although a family may ask a speech-language pathologist to work on helping a child with autism become verbal the goal first is functional communication. A great side effect from the treatment and teaching a child to use picture symbols and/or sign language is that it actually can promote verbal communication.
Because the speech-language pathologist is promoting the concept of functional communication skills, they are also working on the pre-requisites needed to learn verbal communication. For example, when learning the sign for “more” a speech-language pathologist is actually working on three different important concepts. They are attention, cause and effect, and imitation. You will require some form of joint attention to communicate with another person so that they see what the message is, you will understand the concept of cause and effect (If I do this then this will happen, e.g pushing a button then something lights up), and imitates the physical gestures of “more”. The reason we do this and start with gestures for requesting wants/needs are because they are the most motivating to our children!
Now let’s say the speech-language pathologist has successfully built a relationship with a child and that child is doing well with their nonverbal communication using gestures or picture symbols. The next step can be to imitate sounds and follows those other concepts of cause and effect. This entire process is easier said than done but with the right mix of plans and consistency you can have functional communication and possibly learn the verbal communication. There can be many obstacles along the way of speech production. A child with autism can have difficulty imitating the precise movements of the muscles or intonations of the sounds. This is why a speech-language pathologist will focus on the language building with alternative methods if necessary to create functional communication skills.
Autism spectrum disorder is an extremely broad range disability that currently impacts individuals long term. It’s a journey with continuous obstacles, however during the years of development from an infant to a young adult there are opportunities for them to learn and improve. With the right support from family and professionals you find a way for the most appropriate outcomes whether they are verbal or nonverbal.
Opinions expressed by Spectrum Heart contributors are their own.