Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the way people communicate, connect, and react. Some autism symptoms are directly related to behavior. Avoiding eye contact, rocking back and forth, or walking on tiptoes are a few physical traits associated with autism.
Some symptoms relate to how a person talks or listens when others speak. These traits are the focus of speech-language therapy for autism.
Common Autism Speech Therapy Goals
Useful and functional communication is the overarching goal of autism speech therapy. Professionals work with their clients to help them talk with others effectively. In some cases, therapists help their clients learn to listen carefully too.
Clear communication stems from several, disparate skills. Autism Speaks explains that therapists might help their clients to :
- Build muscles. Mouth, jaw, and neck muscles help people to enunciate clearly.
- Understand nonverbal communication. Sessions might help people learn to match an emotion with a facial expression. Others might decode common forms of body language.
- Speak clearly. Some sessions help clients make crisp sounds. Others help clients learn to modulate their tone of voice.
- Use assistive devices. Some people with autism prefer to use speech apps or picture books to communicate rather than using their voices.
These are lofty goals, and they can take time to achieve. While we’ve all seen stories of therapists who render amazing transformations in just an hour or two , it’s common for professionals to help clients build these skills over weeks, months, or even years.
People with advanced deficits need more time than others might. They’re essentially starting from scratch, where others have a few abilities they can build on.
Similarly, it’s a mistake to make sweeping statements about how much therapy is needed or how long each session should last. Everyone with autism is different, with unique needs that must be addressed individually. No two speech therapy sessions are exactly alike as a result.
Autism Speaks recommends asking therapists about the proposed program before therapy begins. Ask:
- How many hours of treatment per week do you recommend?
- How long will each session last?
- How will you measure progress?
- What improvements can we expect within the next week? Month? Year?
Ask many therapists these questions, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Listen closely, and you could discern differences between programs and approaches, and that could help you make an informed decision.
How Does Speech Therapy Start?
Autism therapy aims to offer people with autism the best chance at a healthy, happy life. But everyone with autism doesn’t start in the same place. Some have larger deficits. Some have socioeconomic concerns. Others require cultural modifications.
Therapists start their work by understanding where their clients are now and where they’d like to go. They then craft a treatment plan that is tailored to the unique needs of each individual.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) says speech-language pathologists use a variety of formal and informal tests to assess their clients’ skills, including those that are:
- Linguistic. What language does the person use now? How well can the person speak that language?
- Speech-based. How strong are the person’s motor speech abilities? How clearly can the person speak?
- Mechanical. Can the person swallow? Can the person hear?
- Functional. Would the person benefit from using non-language forms of communication instead?
Therapists also determine a client’s goals. What skills are critical for improving life right now? What missing abilities could impact a person’s ability to achieve their hopes and dreams?
Treatment approaches vary by age too, says the National Institutes of Health. For young children with autism, therapy aims to develop pre-language skills. These nonverbal skills include the following:
- Using eye contact
Older children with autism might focus on learning single words, and with that mastered, they can build complete sentences. As children progress in therapy, they may learn how language can help them hold conversations. They might practice staying on topic and letting others speak.
Some speech therapy sessions are private. Clients meet with therapists at home or in an office, and together, they build skills. Some people benefit from group speech sessions , experts say. In this group setting, they can practice their skills with others.
Some people with autism struggle with spoken language, no matter how much therapy they receive. Their sessions may prove so frustrating that they spend the time in a tantrum rather than in learning.
People like this still have something to say. They may use their tantrums and vocalizations to get their key points across. Therapy can help them find another way to communicate.
Speech therapists can introduce speech-generating devices in therapy. They may even train clients to use them. Researchers say there are plenty of devices like this , and some work better for certain people than others. Personal preference must come into account when choosing the device.
At the end of the therapy program, a person with a device like this might be able to more easily communicate with the outside world. The person might just need tablets, books, or phones to do it.
Who Performs Speech Therapy?
Speech therapists are professionals with years of training supporting their work. Many of them also have certifications that help them prove their expertise.
Someone with autism might work with a:
- Speech-language pathologist (SLP). This person has at least a master’s degree. The education allows this person to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, and swallowing disorders.
- SLP with a Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP). This person has a graduate degree, clinical expertise, and proof of completion of a national exam. Also, says ASHA, this person has completed a clinical practicum . This is an advanced level of education that qualifies these professionals to both care for complex cases and supervise other professionals.
- Speech assistant. These professionals hold speech-language therapy sessions , experts say. They have at least an associate’s degree, and they are supervised by an SLP.
These professionals are qualified to both identify and treat problems with language in people with autism. While your doctor, neurologist, best friend, or distant cousin might have good ideas about what therapies might work and what therapies won’t, only a professional like this can craft and implement a program that works.
How Can Parents & Loved Ones Help?
Love draws you close to the person in your life with autism, and you may be ready and willing to do almost anything to break down communication barriers. You can’t design a program yourself. Only an expert can do that. But there’s a lot you can do to support the person you love.
For example, some children with autism benefit from a form of therapy called pivotal response treatment . Therapists who use this strategy motivate their clients to speak throughout the session, and they keep their tactics light and playful. They might ask the child to name a toy before they hand it over, or they might ask a child to give a command during a game.
Parents can’t design and implement a plan like this, but they can understand how it works and replicate it during the child’s everyday life. These parents might also require a child to name a food at breakfast, for example, or they might ask a child to play “I Spy” in the car for a prize.
Families know they should choose science-based treatments for people with autism . But studies say about half of these families don’t choose a therapy like this. Instead, they use treatments recommended via websites, conversations, and magazines.
If you’re hoping to help someone you love with a speech issue, work with a professional speech therapist. Ask how you can reinforce lessons at home and be part of the treatment program. Be a supportive ally to help the person along with therapy.
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