Speech therapy for toddlers and children: 3 key signs to watch for

November 11, 2021

Speech therapy can help your toddler or child improve their speech and language skills by addressing speech-related and communication challenges in people with autism. Many neurodiverse children struggle with speech and communication, leading to frustration, tantrums, and difficulty developing deep social relationships. The goal of this therapy is to improve verbal and non-verbal communication skills and help children interact more effectively with other people in their lives. 

A speech therapy program usually begins with an assessment from a speech-language pathologist (SLP). The evaluation will determine your child's communication strengths and weaknesses and help the SLP create a personalized program to improve communication and social skills.

Does my child need speech therapy?

Many children with autism will need speech therapy at some point during their lives and, much like with ABA therapy, early intervention is extremely important. If you think your child might need speech therapy, talk to your pediatrician about a referral. While the needs of every child are unique, here are some common challenges for children diagnosed with autism you should look out for. 

Unconventional language development

In general, children with ASD may not follow the usual developmental pattern of people their age when it comes to language and communication and if you notice that your child's development diverges meaningfully from their peers, it may be worth consulting with an SLP. 

For instance, they may learn to read and memorize from a very young age compared to their peers but may have difficulty enunciating words properly when speaking. Additionally, they may struggle to engage with or respond to other people, so much so that children with ASD are often first misdiagnosed with hearing impairment!

Challenges with non-verbal communication 

Children with autism may struggle to use gestures or pick up non-verbal cues from others when communicating. They may also have a hard time maintaining eye contact or even looking at another person’s face when talking. This can prove particularly challenging because people who are unfamiliar with the unique communication needs of children on the spectrum may read this lack of eye contact as a lack of interest, or even rude. 

Repetitive language

Children with ASD also tend to repeat words or phrases in a way that makes understanding their meaning difficult. For example, a child may repeat a nursery rhyme, jingle, or catchphrase when asked about a seemingly unrelated topic (like their favorite color). While many people assume these interactions mean that children on the spectrum are not paying attention or cannot understand what they are being asked, it may be that the child simply has not developed the skills to communicate their thoughts in a way that others can understand. 

Similarly, children with ASD may also repeat sentences or phrases that they hear from others when engaged in conversation (often called Echolalia).  For example, when asked “do you like this shirt?”, a child may respond by echoing the question rather than responding. It's common for these echoed phrases to be repeated in robot-like, high-pitched, or singsong tones of voice.

Finally, children on the spectrum may be over-reliant on communication patterns and struggle to adapt when these patterns are not situationally appropriate. For example, the child may start conversations by introducing themselves, even when the person they are talking to is a family member or friend they already know well. 

How can speech therapy help? 

Verbal communication skills

For children who struggle with verbal communication, speech therapy may target some or all of the following:

  • Learning names of things and people
  • Discovering new words, phrases, or sentences
  • Practicing the rate and rhythm of speech
  • Exercising to gain muscle strength is the neck, jaw, and mouth
  • Responding to questions
  • Leaning to make clear speech sounds
  • Practicing tone and voice modulation

Non-verbal communication skills

SLPs also coach children on non-verbal communication and may target the following in their treatment plans:

  • Making eye contact
  • Using hands and other gestures to communicating
  • Matching feelings or emotions with the appropriate facial expression
  • Understanding body language.

Alternative and augmentative communication 

In addition to these verbal and non-verbal communication skills, SLPs may help children communicate with tools called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems. AAC systems are simply tools that go beyond traditional speech and language that allow children to interact and communicate. Some low-tech examples include:

  • Drawing and coloring
  • Gestures and sign language 
  • Pointing to pictures of objects or faces 

There are also high-tech options like apps or speech-generating devices that can assist children who struggle to speak or communicate in other ways.

How do I find a speech therapist?

Since speech therapy is considered a medical intervention, it is covered by most insurance plans. You can reach out to your insurance company, your pediatrician, or even your diagnostic provider to find referrals to SLPs in your area.

One thing to note is that speech therapy can be conducted in a variety of environments, including:

  • in private clinical settings
  • at schools
  • at home

Make sure to talk to your provider about which setting is right for your child. 

Here at Songbird, we work to provide referrals to excellent SLPs we have worked with before, so feel free to contact us to learn more! 

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