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The word “autism” has its origin in the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.” Children with autism often are self-absorbed and seem to exist in a private world where they are unable to successfully communicate and interact with others. Children with autism may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding what others say to them. They also may have difficulty communicating nonverbally, such as through hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions.

Not every child with an autism spectrum disorder will have a language problem. A child’s ability to communicate will vary, depending upon his or her intellectual and social development. Some children with autism may be unable to speak. Others may have rich vocabularies and be able to talk about specific subjects in great detail. Most children with autism have little or no problem pronouncing words. The majority, however, have difficulty using language effectively, especially when they talk to other people. Many have problems with the meaning and rhythm of words and sentences. They also may be unable to understand body language and the nuances of vocal tones.

Below are some patterns of language use and behaviors that are often found in children with autism.

  • Repetitive or rigid language. Often, children with autism who can speak will say things that have no meaning or that seem out of context in conversations with others. For example, a child may count from one to five repeatedly. Or a child may continuously repeat words he or she has heard, a condition called echolalia. Immediate echolalia occurs when the child repeats words someone has just said. For example, the child may respond to a question by asking the same question. In delayed echolalia, the child will repeat words heard at an earlier time. The child may say “Do you want something to drink?” whenever he or she asks for a drink.

    Some children with autism speak in a high-pitched or singsong voice or use robot-like speech. Other children with autism may use stock phrases to start a conversation. For example, a child may say “My name is Tom,” even when he talks with friends or family. Still others may repeat what they hear on television programs or commercials.

  • Narrow interests and exceptional abilities. Some children may be able to deliver an in-depth monologue about a topic that holds their interest, even though they may not be able to carry on a two-way conversation about the same topic. Others have musical talents or an advanced ability to count and do math calculations. Approximately 10 percent of children with autism show “savant” skills, or extremely high abilities in specific areas, such as calendar calculation, music, or math.

  • Uneven language development. Many children with autism develop some speech and language skills, but not to a normal level of ability, and their progress is usually uneven. For example, they may develop a strong vocabulary in a particular area of interest very quickly. Many children have good memories for information just heard or seen. Some children may be able to read words before 5 years of age, but they may not comprehend what they have read. They often do not respond to the speech of others and may not respond to their own names. As a result, children with autism sometimes are mistakenly thought to have a hearing problem.

  • Poor nonverbal conversation skills. Children with autism often are unable to use gestures—such as pointing to an object—to give meaning to their speech. They often avoid eye contact, which can make them seem rude, uninterested, or inattentive. Without meaningful gestures or the language to communicate, many children with autism become frustrated in their attempts to make their feelings and needs known. They may act out their frustrations through vocal outbursts or other inappropriate behaviors.

How are the speech and language problems of autism treated?

If a doctor suspects a child has autism or another developmental disability, he or she usually will refer the child to a variety of specialists, including a speech-language pathologist. This is a health professional trained to treat individuals with voice, speech, and language disorders. The speech-language pathologist will perform a comprehensive evaluation of the child’s ability to communicate and design an appropriate treatment program. In addition, the pathologist might make a referral for audiological testing to make sure the child’s hearing is normal.

Reference: Brain and Nerves section on Better Medicine


Did You Know?

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Experts estimate that as many as 25% of all children with autism may never develop verbal language skills.