Speech Therapy for Autism: 7 Target Skills

June 1, 2022

Speech therapy for autism focuses on language and communication challenges and can aid in improving verbal, nonverbal, and social communication in children with autism. The ultimate goal is to assist the child in communicating more functionally and efficiently.

Communication challenges vary from child to child. Some children on the spectrum are unable to communicate at all, while others enjoy conversing but have difficulties maintaining a conversation or comprehending body language and facial expressions of others.

Speech therapy is recommended for many children diagnosed with autism because of limited or impaired speech and language. Even those who are verbal can benefit from a targeted care plan to improve their expressive and receptive language and social communication skills.

What is speech therapy and who provides it?

Speech therapy is a broad field involving the assessment and treatment of speech and language disorders. Speech therapy can assist children that stutter or have difficulty using their lips and tongues to correctly form words, as well as making it easier for children with developmental challenges to learn and use spoken language in social situations. 

Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) administer the assessments and procedures and design an appropriate care plan for those with communication and speech needs. Depending on the type of speech or language delay, this may include articulation therapy, language intervention exercises, or another method as determined by the SLP. 

This type of therapist generally holds a master's degree and works with children in a private setting such as a clinic, school, or institution as part of a teaching team. They administer speech therapy with a variety of tools and methodology, including toys, play therapy, and rigorous testing and instruction following a treatment plan.

Benefits of speech therapy for children with autism

Speech therapy from a trained and experienced SLP can positively impact the life of a child with autism, substantially improving their quality of life. Speech therapy techniques are designed to help the child learn new skills that can assist a person in communicating their wants, needs and dislikes. Through their unique care plan, a child may be able to develop the communication abilities to make and maintain friendships and participate in social activities. 

Some specific ways that speech therapy can benefit children with autism include:

  • Increasing the child's ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally, which may include sign language and other Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).
  • Building their capacity to initiate conversations with others
  • Assisting them in comprehending both verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as social cues such as facial expressions and body language
  • Improving confidence so that they can engage socially with others
  • Instilling a sense of self-control
  • Growing the capacity to attend to others

What are some target skills therapists engage to help children with autism?

Speech therapists can be quite helpful in teaching a child with autism how to speak and interact with others. They may work individually with children or in groups, depending on the specified session location and the needs of the child.  

The therapist may focus on one or more of these skills, depending on your child's level of functioning and care plan:

  • Non-verbal communication

Teaching children to identify facial expressions and body language of others, common gestures, proxemics, personal space, and more. 

  • Grammar

While proper grammar may be modeled at home or school, some children with autism still struggle with it. For example, they may use the third person ("Johnny needs juice") or inappropriate tenses. Speech therapists frequently work with children to address their grammar errors and improve the quality of their conversations.

  • Conversational skills

Being able to carry on a conversation does not mean that a child will observe proper conversational etiquette. Understanding proper volume control, appropriate tone, how to allow for turn taking in conversation, and the ability to wait patiently for the child’s turn to speak are all important skills. Therapists may seek improvement by engaging the child in back-and-forth exchanges, sometimes known as "joint attention," with an end goal of eliminating interfering behaviors while encouraging appropriate conversations. 

  • Conceptual skills

The ability to express abstract concepts does not always imply that they are understood. Many children struggle with conceptualizing abstract language. Speech therapists can help support concept development.

  • Asking and responding to questions

Without some assistance, children with autism may not learn the ability to ask and answer questions. A speech therapist can teach them to recognize when a question is asked and respond accordingly. They can also assist the child in designing, asking, and understanding their own questions.

  • Speech pragmatics

Having the ability to use expressions such as “good morning” are fantastic, but the child must also understand when it is appropriate to use that expression. Speech pragmatics training helps children to grasp time or situation-sensitive dialogue as well as complicated figurative language such as idioms and how to make proper use of them. 

  • Social skills

Speech therapists, along with play therapists, occupational therapists, and specialists in specific fields such as recreational therapy, drama therapy, and art therapy, frequently assist children with autism to develop more advanced social communication skills. This includes asking and answering questions, standing at an adequate distance from a discussion partner, assessing the emotions of others, etc. 

Each child with autism is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all therapy. However, there are several common strategies, and depending on the child’s current obstacles, the therapeutic approach will likely be a combination of several of them. These activities may include typing, singing songs, using pictures and word flashcards, learning sentences with a specific intonation, or stressing certain components of a sentence.

Early intervention

Speech therapy is one of the most effective strategies to enhance communication abilities, yet it is most effective when started at a young age. From birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops more than any other time in their life, which means that it is far easier to reinforce changes during these years, than once their brains have reached full development. 

Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, children typically pronounce their first words, and in their second year, they begin to compose very simple phrases. As a result, autism is commonly identified around the age of three, and beginning speech therapy at an early age can help individuals be set up for success across their lifetime. 

Due to the wide range of autism symptoms, some people may not be diagnosed until a later age. Nevertheless, speech therapy can achieve results at any age, so it is never too late to help support a child’s speech and language development, even as they move into adulthood.

Conclusion

A person with autism may have a variety of communication difficulties. Since autism is such a broad spectrum, children will experience a wide variety of symptoms which may include an inability to speak, grunting, moaning, not making eye contact, or using invented language. With a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, speech therapy can be used to treat these challenges using a unique approach tailored for each child’s individual needs. 

Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

Get started with care from Songbird — covered by insurance