Speech delay is one of the hallmarks of autistic disorders. Many parents are concerned about whether their autistic child will learn to speak at all. The Autism Research Institute offers an analysis of their data that involves over 30,000 cases of autism, with regard to the development of speech.

  • 9% of autistic children/adults never develop speech
  • Of those who do, 43% begin to talk by one year of age
  • 35% begin to talk during their second year or before age 2
  • 22% begin to talk in their third year or later
  • 12% were still totally non-verbal by the age of five

This seems to fit the traditional wisdom that children who do not develop speech and language skills by the age of five are not likely to ever develop them, but it is not a tried and true fact. In fact, it is apparent that with appropriate intervention and teaching, most autistic children can learn to talk to some extent. But what is appropriate intervention and teaching?

There are several approved methods for helping autistic children to acquire language. These include:

• Using sign language. ‘Simultaneous communication or ‘signed speech has been shown to be helpful in teaching children spoken language. Parents and caretakers can learn a few simple signs, like ‘drink, ‘bathroom, ‘hug and other words, and sign them as they speak the words.

• PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) was originally developed to allow non-verbal children a means of communication using pictures and symbols on a board. Like signed speech, PECS can be helpful in teaching spoken language as well.

• Applied Behavior Analysis can be used to teach a child to communicate using spoken language by rewarding attempts and fading reinforcement as the child acquires language

• Encouraging the child to sing along with a tape. Many autistic children are particularly drawn to music and may sing even if they dont speak.

• Swinging, rocking or other rhythmic, stimulating movements while teaching speech seem to help children with autism to acquire speech

• There are some nutritional/medical therapies that have been associated with dramatic improvements in speech. These include vitamin B6, magnesium and a casein and gluten free diet.

These are not the only methods that may produce results. Traditional speech therapy can be useful, as can less traditional methods as shown in this personal case history.

Case History

A co-worker wrote the following history for us:

In 1981, I worked with an 11 year old boy who was multiply diagnosed with autism and mental retardation, as well as a number of other disorders. At 11, he had no speech at all, though he did have some receptive language. His history indicated that at least one of his primary caretakers felt that Alan did use language to communicate in some circumstances, but there was no data to back it up. Alan did, however, enjoy music, and when he believed that no one was listening would sing along with songs on the radio. Most of those involved in his treatment believed that he was merely repeating sounds that he heard.

In working with Alan, two particular instances made me certain that he did have language and was somehow blocked in his attempts to use it to communicate. In the first, I was working with him on accomplishing a task that he did not want to do. As I persisted he became more and more visibly agitated, finally screaming out in frustration ‘Leave me alone! The moment the words were out, he clapped his hand over his mouth and stared at me as if he was terrified.

Shortly after that, I was working with him on a name recognition task. His mood was silly, and I played into it, teasing him by pointing to the card that was NOT his name and saying his name. After about ten minutes of this game, during which he got more and more giggly and silly, he suddenly gave me a very sly look, picked up the card with his name on it and held it out, chanting, “Alan. AlanAlanAlanAlanAlan.” From there, his acquisition of usable speech was remarkably rapid. Within six months he had a vocabulary of over 100 words, which he used in many situations.

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