speech and language therapy for autism

Speech And Language Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Posted on
April 13, 2023
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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be explained as a developmental disability that is differentiated in the brain. Children and adults with ASD can present challenges with social interaction and communication, as well as having behaviors and interests that are either repetitive or restrictive. Learning, attention and moving with these individuals may be different from those who don’t present with ASD.

Speech and Language Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

ASD is a diagnosis that can manifest in different ways for each individual. Speech and Language Professionals (SLP) are pivotal in supporting individuals with ASD to learn about how to engage with the social world around them while advocating for their own nuanced ways of navigating the social world. Come learn with me about what how SLPs can support individuals with ASD.

Do speech and language therapists work with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?

SLPs work with individuals with ASD, always! They are needed in order to help those with ASD access their social communication skills. While a multidisciplinary team that collaborates needs to be in place - including other related service providers (occupational, physical therapist, etc) and parents, and teachers, SLPs are at the forefront of helping individuals develop functional communication that works for them.

What are 3 examples of language deficits in individuals with ASD?

Language deficits manifest in individuals with ASD, which is why early intervention is critical. This will mitigate future language deficits and the persistence of these deficits. Some of these challenges or deficits include:

  1. Pragmatic language deficits (a core feature of ASD) - this is receptive and expressive social language- the ability to understand social language and express social language/needs. This includes understanding and expressing body language that matches intent, understanding and expressing the perspective of others in structured and unstructured activities, taking turns with others in conversation and play, and so much more!
  2. Limited vocabulary is produced in expressive language for those that have limited verbal skills. Additionally, there is difficulty with using relevant gestures and specific body language that matches intent in non-verbal language for expressive language with others.
  3. Difficulty with joint attention (the ability to attend to an object or game with someone else) is often present. This can impact learning and language development as it is through joint attention that word-object associations emerge and grow.

speech therapy for autism
Speech Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders

What does a speech and language therapist do for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?

There are a variety of ways that an SLP can provide intervention for an individual with ASD. It is important to remember that autism speech therapy will be different for individuals and what they require for different needs. At the core, however, is the common goal to help individuals access their social communication, so that whatever form of communication they are using matches the intent of what they are trying to communicate.

For individuals with ASD who are non-verbal and learning how to develop their verbal communication, SLPs work alongside other professionals with AAC devices at times to support non-verbal communication. It is important to learn about the function of non-verbal communication and try to understand the intent and function of the gestures to support both non-verbal and verbal communication.

Let’s discuss 5 ways that SLPs can support non-verbal communication in individuals with ASD:

  1. Core words cannot be underestimated. They are the underpinnings of language development. Core words or keywords being used at home or in the student's classroom environment should be utilized collaboratively and incorporated in all environments. They can be words being learned based on categories (ie. animals, colors, etc) or based on key phrases to request (i.e. I want).
  2. Once core words are established, they can be taught through picture boards with visuals that represent them or on AAC devices that are more interactive.
  3. Let the child with ASD engage in play with their favorite objects! Honor their gestures by looking with them at what they’re pointing and repeating back to them what you think they are pointing at. This will help them understand that you don’t know what they need unless they point or gesture at the desired objects.
  4. Look at the child’s body language, especially facial expressions! This will allow you to understand how they’re feeling and show them pictures that represent different feelings based on how the facial expressions change. This will put on their radar that feelings help the people close to them understand what they want or need at the moment.
  5. Always give choices! SLPs are well-versed in providing choices to all. Choices should incorporate their interests since this is what motivates people to communicate. Use pictures as needed or objects themselves to let the child make a choice of what THEY want to use in a therapy session.

For individuals with autism and speech who have a high level of verbal communication skills but display difficulty with social pragmatics skills, it is important to use the power of observation to be a guest in the world of the child who can guide you through their way of social thinking.

Here are the steps you can take as an SLP to develop an intervention plan:

  1. Take a survey of triggers that interrupt their social communication (ie sensitivity to loud noises can cause elevated aggression; someone interrupting can cause the individual to leave the room)
  2. Make a list of ways that these sensory or social triggers can be mitigated by alternative solutions.
  3. Once this working plan has been established, all the pivotal aspects of social communication can be worked on: perspective-taking, reciprocal conversation, turn-taking in play and games, using body language to convey relevant messages, etc.
  4. It is important to make observations as the individual is engaging in a social task with others (make sure to have group sessions!): “I notice that you are getting upset because he/she is speaking first, but sometimes others will get the chance to speak first and you will have that opportunity too.”
  5. Through repeated observations and social models that can be in the form of social stories, role-playing (to practice switching roles), comic strip conversations (that model perspective of all parties related to a specific situation that is leading to the same undesired outcome with pictures of individuals and what they are thinking and saying) - that are specifically relevant to the individual’s social needs, the individual will learn about what is getting in the way of their social communication and prevent future social communication breakdowns by executing alternative solutions.

What is the most common therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?

There is no one most common autism speech therapy. As explained earlier, there are numerous interventions and strategies. This depends on the level of continuum of communication development that the child is on and what works for them. One person with ASD is one person with ASD. Their interests and needs will differ and will require different types of intervention. However, incorporating all people that communicate with the child - parents, teachers, etc using the same strategies is the priority for whichever interventions and specific strategies/ materials are used.

As a Speech and Language Professional (SLP), learn more about autism and speech interventions in our monthly free online Noala Clubs sessions.

If you found this interesting, you may want to read the correlation between What is Speech Delay and how is it connected to Autism in our blog.

Autism speech therapy references:

Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder)

Autism – clinical information for SLTs | RCSLT

The Effects of the Pragmatic Intervention Programme in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Developmental Language Disorder

Speech and Language Impairments in Autism: Insights from Behavior and Neuroimaging - PMC

Home - Carol Gray - Social Stories

Social stories and comic strip conversations

Sarah Lyons
Clinical Director, United Kingdom
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