Autism is certainly one of the things parents worry about when their child’s speech is not developing as expected. And it is true that late speech and language development is one of the signs of autism. But only a small percentage of late talkers actually are on the autism spectrum.
Autism is a communication disorder, a social disorder. Speech is a tool through which humans communicate with each other. It makes sense then that individuals with autism will not develop speech normally. Speech is not, however, our only means of communicating.
We also communicate through gaze, facial expressions, and gestures. Chances are autism is not the cause of your child’s speech delay, if your child responds to your smile by looking at your face and smiling back; responds to your pointing by looking in the given direction; calls your attention to things of interest by pointing while looking for a response from you, etc.
The website autismspeaks.org has a wealth of information about autism, including a list of early signs. They state that if you observe any of the listed red flags, you should request an evaluation. That is certainly good advice. Just be aware that autism is just one of the possible causes of these very significant speech delays. See also my response to Shouldn’t my child be talking by now?
I do not consider myself qualified to diagnose autism. But, I have on many occasions been the first to recognize strong indicators of autism spectrum issues in a child. Speech-language skills develop very differently in the child with autism as compared to the child with more typical speech delays.
All children learn speech by imitating what they hear. Already at the babbling stage, the baby usually enjoys a game of imitating sounds back and forth with the adult. The autism spectrum child learns by imitating too, but the back and forth engagement is less likely.
At later stages, the autistic child’s imitation often continues detached from the speaker. The child simply parrots back what you say, sometimes even whole sentences. We call this echolalia. A certain amount of “parroting” is part of the normal learning process. It may therefore be difficult for you to identify what is true echolalia. (I will write more about this in future articles.)
Sometimes, we see in the autistic child’s early speech development delayed imitation. This is different from echolalia. Let’s say you name a toy, intending for your child to imitate it in the normal process of learning to name things. Instead, your child seems more interested in some other toy. You get the impression that he/she did not even hear you. A little while later, your child surprises you by saying the very word you were trying to teach. This even though you didn’t say the word again. Such delayed imitations are common among children with autism while less likely with other children.
Other Speech Characteristics
With time, the child on the autism spectrum tends to gain a large vocabulary of naming words with concrete meaning. But, the child has trouble generalizing word meanings. A child with autism might not be able to name an object on a picture because it is not the actual object. Or they might not recognize the pictured object because it doesn’t look exactly like the one at home.
Relative concepts such as prepositions and describing words are exceptionally challenging for children on the autism spectrum. These children tend to focus their attention on those words that carry specific, concrete meaning. Sentence structure becomes a total mystery, as what I like to call the structure words make no sense to them. (See my article Learning Words.)
The young child with autism tends to perceive sentences as a strings of jibber jabber that make no sense. Embedded in this mess of nonsense they pick up a few familiar content words. Some children will imitate this by what we call jargon with a few recognizable words inserted here and there.
When these children begin using sentences, they usually start by saying entire sentences exactly as they have heard them. Some will recite whole dialogs from a movie they have seen. They often repeat the sentences in more or less appropriate contexts. When they eventually start constructing their own sentences, these are generally incomplete. These immature sentence structures tend to last much longer than with the average child.
None of the typical characteristics I have described applies to all children on the autism spectrum. Neither is any one of them in and of itself a sure sign of autism. Nevertheless, if they seem to apply to your child, you should consider them red flags. You should then be sure to get an evaluation. The earlier you can get even a tentative diagnosis, the sooner you can get appropriate services for your child. It is important for you to get proper guidance for how to address the issues at home. In the future, I will have more articles about the language learning challenges of the child with autism spectrum issues.