Home » Ask Geoff Fraser: 5 Core Principles of Speech Therapy for Children on the Autistic Spectrum

Ask Geoff Fraser: 5 Core Principles of Speech Therapy for Children on the Autistic Spectrum

by Melissa Bell
5 minutes read

Autism manifested differently in different people. Some children exhibit early warning signs of autism through a lack of facial expressions or social interaction. Many children with autism struggle with speech. Struggling with speech may include not babbling as infants typically do, not using words as a toddler, or not using meaningful phrases. This is where speech therapy comes in. Speech therapy can be a key part of providing extra encouragement and coaching to begin speaking and expressing themselves. While speech therapy looks different for each child, there are a few key skills and practices that speech therapy strives to address and propagate.

Functional Communication

Functional and spontaneous communication may feel innate to most neurotypical people. But children with autism may need support from a place like Geoff Fraser Clear Choice Health Care to learn this skill. If your child is already communicating unprompted and can articulate what they want and need, even if they may not be using many words yet, that is a major step. Some children with autism will need more support on this step.

Children Autistic

Some children with autism may need to rely on AAC or augmentative-alternative communication. AAC may look different depending on the child. AAC could take the form of sign language, a picture board, or a device that speaks a message out loud when the child pushes a button. No matter what the communication looks or sounds like, the important thing is that the child can communicate. The second part of functional communication is unprompted communication. This may take the form of a transition from asking questions to elicit a response to slowly reducing the number of prompts. Every child will grow their independence at their own pace.

Social Instruction

This is a two-part step involving how a child with autism interacts with others. The first step is explaining what is socially acceptable in different situations. For many neurotypical people, their communication is unhindered by social norms because they are so used to them and perceive them subconsciously. Children with autism may need more support to determine what is socially acceptable in different situations. One type of support is visual support, which includes items or images that are place in a room to serve as a reminder of the norms of the situation. Another type of support is video or story supports, both of which model appropriate behavior in different settings through narratives.

Social Interaction

The second part of this speech therapy goal involves teaching social skills. Children with autism may find it difficult to interact with peers, but speech therapy can offer practice and encouragement. For younger children, social interaction in speech therapy may look like play skills, responding to a name being called, or establishing the ability to pay attention to those around them. In older children, social interaction may take the form of targeted conversations tailored to build lacking skills and learning how to look at scenarios from a different perspective. Some activities may be structured to elicit certain responses, like placing a possession in a hard-to-reach area to prompt a request. Over time, these activities will help a child with autism transition skills to the real world and have stronger social interactions.

Moving Forward

If you want your child to progress in their speech skills, more speech therapy time may not be the answer. While speech therapy is incredibly helpful, it’s also important to educate the people in your child’s day-to-day life on how to support your child’s speech development. Not only will this reinforce what your child is learning in speech therapy, but this also allows them to practice communication in a natural environment and get reinforcement from multiple sources. Children with autism tend to have trouble with generalizing. They may not naturally apply the communication skills they’ve learned in speech therapy to social interactions in the real world. Having other adults in their lives provide reinforcement, as well as conducting speech therapy in a classroom environment, can help with this transition.

There are three main types of speech therapy. The first is direct therapy minutes, which typically happen in a therapy room and, while very helpful, may develop skills that children with autism have difficulty replicating outside of the therapy room. Push-in minutes serve as a bridge between direct therapy and a natural environment. This type of speech therapy typically occurs in a classroom setting. Last, but certainly not least, is speech therapy from teachers, parents, and other adults. Speech therapists may build consultation minutes into direct therapy appointment time to instruct parents on reinforcing skills learned in speech therapy in other environments. Due to the challenge that children have with generalization, as previously mentioned, this last type of therapy can be key in translating speech therapy skills into real-life applications.

Next Steps

For many children with autism, speech therapy doesn’t end with a few core skills. Speech therapy will continue to grow and advance with them as they enter school, encounter unfamiliar social interactions, and are introduced to more complex language. Speech sound errors are a common struggle for children with autism. This includes speech issues like pronouncing the word “ring” as “wing.” Grammar errors may also prove to be a difficult hurdle, especially pronouns, the past tense, possessive nouns, and plural nouns. Forming and answering questions may also prove to be a challenge. Figurative language, like using similes and idioms, is a difficult concept for neurotypical children, but children with autism tend to struggle even more with grasping the concept. These are all common struggles for children with autism, and speech therapists are well-versed in how best to encourage children to develop their skills in these areas.

Speech therapy tends to follow these main objectives, but every child with autism struggles differently with speech and communication. Therefore, their path, both in techniques used, skills learned, and time spent, won’t look exactly like any other child’s path through speech therapy. The path that your child takes through speech therapy may be winding, but it will move forward.

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