Speech Therapy for Autism Full Guide: How it Works, Benefits & FAQs
What is Speech Therapy for Autism? | Benefits | Speech Therapists | Goals | How to Choose a Therapist | Techniques | Activities | Forbrain | Conclusion | References
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, caused by differences in the way the brain develops and functions. Also known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, it often presents as issues with a child’s communication skills.
Children with autism may feel misunderstood or isolated as a result of their issues with communication. They may struggle to meet developmental or educational milestones.
Speech therapy is an important tool in treating the communication skills of children with autism as they develop.
Children with autism often have difficulty understanding and following social guidelines. They struggle with using language for social purposes, such as engaging with others.
Children with autism also often exhibit repetitive behaviors and restricted interests.
Because their brains develop differently, children with autism communicate differently. This can impact their ability to engage with caregivers and peers. It can present limitations to their opportunities in school and in life.
Speech and language pathologists support kids with autism in developing their communication skills. In particular, SLPs are involved in treating the social language skills of children with autism.
Let’s explore how and why speech therapy is involved in treating children on the autism spectrum.
What is Speech Therapy for Autism?
Speech therapists provide assessment and treatment for all types of communication skills. Speech therapists work on speech, language, literacy, and communication skills with children.
If your child has autism, speech therapy is an important part of your support service team.
Speech therapists work with autistic children to develop language and social communication skills. Kids with autism benefit from explicit instruction in how to use social language skills effectively. Speech therapists support children with autism in improving verbal and non-verbal language skills.
Today, our ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of autism earlier on in a child’s development has improved. This has improved access for autistic individuals to early intervention therapies.
The earlier autism is detected in a child, the sooner therapeutic interventions can begin. Research shows early intervention with autistic children leads to improved outcomes. This is even the case for children with moderate to severe autism.
One study found early language therapy increased the ability of non-verbal children to become verbal. The same effect was not seen for children over the age of five.
Experts agree on the importance of early intervention in the treatment outcomes of children with autism.
No matter the age, speech therapy still benefits kids with autism in developing communication skills.
Let’s explore the benefits of speech therapy for autism.
Benefits of Speech Therapy for Autism
Speech therapy for people with autism can help improve social skills and receptive and expressive language. It can also support independence, self-confidence, and overall development.
Speech therapy benefits children with autism by providing explicit training to improve communication. Most children with autism need direct instruction to learn important communication skills. Speech therapists provide clear, focused treatments and strategies to support language skills development.
Children with autism benefit from educational support services to promote their overall development. Speech therapists provide training to support autistic children’s development of language skills.
Working with a speech therapist can enhance the social, vocal, and language skills of children with autism.
Let’s review some of the ways speech therapists target communication skills in kids with autism.
How Speech Therapist Works with Autistic Children
Speech therapists can provide explicit training to help kids with autism pick up on social cues and understand social norms. This can support those with autism in improving their ability to interact with others to get their needs met and be a part of society. This focus of therapy shows positive results and is often used with the autistic population.
Some children with autism repeat words or phrases they’ve heard multiple times, either immediately afterward or following a delay. Speech therapists work with children to enhance their functional speech.
Speech therapy can help children expand their vocabulary. Speech therapists can teach new words, and can introduce them into activities a child enjoys.
Speech therapists also support children with autism to improve their receptive language skills. They can teach and practice recognizing non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. They can even create books and flashcards that include pictures of these for the child to review and practice.
Children with autism often use verbal language for the purposes of regulating their environment. Neurotypical children, in contrast, use language for social purposes and to initiate interactions. Speech therapists work with children with autism to improve their recognition and ability to respond to social cues. These cues can involve both verbal and non-verbal communication.
Speech therapists help autistic children to expand their vocal range and use more inflection when speaking. They do this by modeling inflection variations, and providing practice and feedback. They also encourage children to self-monitor and correct.
Speech therapists often use both explicit and implicit instruction with children with autism. This means some skills are directly targeted during therapy, and the child is aware of what they’re working on. Other times, target skills are embedded into activities a child finds motivating and enjoyable. This can include games that involve use of social cues and interpreting non-verbal cues.
Speech Therapy Goals for Autism
When a speech therapist works with your child, they don’t just wing it. SLPs set forth clear long and short term goals for the children they work with. These goals are based on their thorough evaluation of your child’s skills and needs.
SLPs also base their therapy approach and goals on your child’s educational plan. If your child has been diagnosed with autism and is in school, they’re eligible for an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This program covers the developmental goals your child’s care team hopes to help them achieve, as well as a timeline and plan to follow.
Your child’s speech therapy goals will be based around these factors as well as their individual needs. These goals are measurable and are tracked with data and percentages.
Speech therapy for kids with autism might look like:
- The student will identify emotions from facial expressions at 85% accuracy given moderate verbal cues
- The child will demonstrate appropriate prosody at the sentence level in 80% of attempts, given min verbal feedback
- The student will demonstrate use of trained vocabulary words in verbal interactions at 85% accuracy, given min to mod verbal cues
- The student will use a picture schedule to enhance daily transitions with reduced behaviors at 15%, given min visual and verbal cues
- The child will recognize and respond to social cues in conversational exchanges at 80% accuracy, given min verbal and visual cues
These sample goals give you an idea of how SLPs create and write goals to treat children with autism. These are just examples, and your child’s SLP will create long and short term goals that are just for them. Your child’s speech therapist will always share your child’s goals and progress with you. Never hesitate to ask!
How to Choose a Good Autism Speech Therapist
When your child is diagnosed with autism, you may be concerned about finding the right speech and language therapist for them. How will you know if a therapist is competent and a good fit for your child’s needs?
In the US, most SLPs are certified by the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA). ASHA ensures that SLPs are highly trained and skilled to provide therapy to a wide range of individuals, including those with autism. You can identify these SLPs because they have three C’s before their professional title. This shows they’ve received their Certificate of Clinical Competence from ASHA.
In some states, not all speech therapists need to be ASHA certified in order to practice in the school setting. But, they do need to complete either a two or four year graduate course of study in communication sciences and disorders.
You also want to look at a speech therapist’s experience and approach. Most SLPs are well-versed in providing evidence-based practice. This means they draw their treatment techniques from modern research and best practices.
You may prefer to work with an SLP who has experience treating children with autism, and can discuss their past results. Many SLPs have experience working with the autistic population. This experience can be very valuable when it comes to crafting the best treatment plan for your child.
No matter who you choose to work with, your SLP will create an individualized treatment plan that’s designed just for your child. When working with kids with autism, it’s vital to create customized treatments, because no two children with autism are exactly alike.
Your child’s teacher or pediatrician are a great source of information and referrals to qualified speech therapists. They can help you select and connect with a speech therapist who can meet your child’s needs.
Autism Speech Therapy Techniques
Speech therapy techniques for autism take many forms, depending on the individual being treated. Here are some examples of specific techniques used by SLPs with this population:
Children with autism often have difficulty with their receptive and expressive language skills. Receptive language skills involve understanding and interpreting verbal and non verbal cues. Expressive language involves using language to communicate our thoughts, wants, and needs.
Many autistic children benefit from instruction in using nonverbal communication. This includes using and interpreting gestures. This is an important skill, because much of what we communicate doesn’t involve verbal language. Humans communicate a lot with our body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
Kids with autism often require direct instruction in the use of nonverbal communication. This is because their ability to recognize and interpret social cues is impaired.
SLPs can train autistic children in the use of gestures with practice, games, videos, and pictures. Children with autism often benefit from repeated practice to understand and use social cues. SLPs create many opportunities for kids to learn and practice gestures. They allow kids to use gestures, and also encourage them to identify them when shown.
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)
AAC is a powerful tool in the autism therapy toolkit. These are also sometimes referred to as communication boards. AAC supplements the communication of children with autism, to support them.
An AAC device can range from high to low tech, depending on the needs of the child using it. Many kids with autism use picture boards, with customized photos or drawings to help them communicate with others and get their needs met. AAC devices can include programmed words and phrases. This can help support communication and language learning. In some cases, AAC is used to help a child with autism with their daily transitions and routines.
Some worry that AAC may hinder the language learning of kids with autism, by providing a crutch to lean on. But research shows the opposite is true. AAC actually enhances language skills. This is because it provides a model and enhances confidence. This leads to more positive interactions.
Supporting verbal communication
Speech therapists help kids with autism expand their vocabularies and improve verbal skills. In some cases, SLPs focus on building pre-verbal skills. These include making eye contact, paying attention, following directions, and taking turns.
Speech therapists build verbal therapy into fun activities for kids with autism. For example, if a child with autism loves trains, an SLP can use these to promote joint attention. The same activity could also focus on vocabulary building, and back and forth communication. SLPs can also use modeling and cues in shared activities, to encourage awareness and self-monitoring.
Making therapy sessions fun for kids with autism is a great way to keep them engaged and motivated to work on building new communication skills.
Let’s look at some specific activities SLPs might use with children with autism at different ages and stages of development.
Speech Therapy Activities for Autism
Autism Speech Therapy for Birth to 2 Years
For children from birth to age two who have been identified as being on the autism spectrum, an SLP might use activities like:
- Shared attention activities, like playing with toys, building together, or playing with clay, sand, or slime.
- Encouraging repetition of simple sounds, like “ma”, “ba”, “pa”, and “wa”.
- Encouraging imitation in games. This can include making animal sounds, modeling facial expressions, or saying simple words.
- Shared book reading of age-appropriate books. This can promote emergent literacy skill development and shared attention.
- Using communication temptations like blowing bubbles and then stopping, to encourage verbalizations.
Autism Speech Therapy for 2 to 4 Years
The communication needs and expectations for children aged two to four years are greater. For this age, an SLP might use activities like:
- Promoting choice making between two items. For example: “Do you want juice or water?”
- Modeling clear and correct word use and grammar.
- Having discussions about familiar things. An SLP can embed word learning, attention, social cues, and verbal skills into this.
- Teaching and modeling common facial expressions, like angry, sad, mad, and happy.
- Teaching gestures like pointing and waving.
Autism Speech Therapy for 4 to 6 Years
An SLP working with autistic children aged four to six years might use activities like:
- Playing age-appropriate games to target joint attention, turn-taking, and sharing. Sorting games can be highly engaging for kids with autism.
- Using sensory processing activities like sensory boxes, rice, clay, slime, or dry beans. Many kids with autism have sensory issues, so this can support sensory processing. It can also support verbal skills, shared attention, and turn-taking.
- Work on WH- questions. A child’s ability to answer what, where, when, why, which, and who questions is a major part of communication.
- Talk about and sort items based on their shape, weight, color, and size. This can help kids with their category awareness skills. It can also help them understand relational concepts, like big and little.
- Play guessing games.
- Play cooperative games to encourage working on a team.
- Introduce and train pictures to enhance communication. This can be used to build vocabulary and also as the basis for a communication board.
The Benefits of Using Forbrain in Speech Therapy
Forbrain is an auditory stimulation headset. It offers a wide range of applications for speech therapists working with children.
Forbrain enhances auditory processing by supporting the auditory feedback loops of its users. This improved auditory feedback can improve speech production, self-monitoring, voicing, and information retention.
SLPs can use Forbrain with children who struggle with auditory processing. It can be used in treatment to enhance auditory feedback during sound drills, vocal exercises, and memory tasks.
Forbrain is also helpful for children with hearing issues, as it enhances hearing through bone conduction. SLPs can use this in therapy for children with hearing loss, as well as training them to use it in a classroom setting.
Forbrain can be used by SLPs to help children monitor and modify their speech sounds, or reduce nasality in speech. For children with autism, it may help address vocal inflection and self-monitoring of monotone speech.
In addition, Forbrain may be useful in speech therapy for children with executive functioning issues. This includes issues like ADD and ADHD. Forbrain can be used to promote attention and comprehension in children who struggle with these skills.
Research strongly suggests that decreased sound tolerance is a common sensory feature of autism. Issues with sound tolerance and processing are reported by the majority of autistic individuals. This issue can increase the functional impairments of people with autism. For some, the Forbrain headset may help improve auditory processing and reduce sound tolerance issues. SLPs can assess and trial this device with autistic children for whom it may be appropriate as a part of treatment.
This video explores how Forbrain can be incorporated into speech therapy.
Autism Speech Therapy FAQs
If your child has been diagnosed with autism or referred to a speech therapist, you probably have many questions.
Here are some commonly asked questions parents have about what speech therapy can offer children with autism.
When is the best time to start speech therapy for autism?
The best time to start speech therapy for autism is For children on the autism spectrum, it’s generally believed that the earlier interventions can begin, the better. Earlier identification of the signs of autism in children has made early interventions much more possible than in the past. Pediatric speech therapists work with children from birth up to school age. Many specialize in treating the communication skills of young kids with autism.
No matter when your child is diagnosed with autism, speech therapy can help them learn key language and communication skills.
How frequently do children with autism need speech therapy?
How frequently children with autism need speech therapy will be based on your individual child and their needs. Some children are seen multiple times per week, some weekly, some even daily. Treatment frequency is tailored to your child’s goals and tolerance of therapy. Therapy may take place in your home, in a therapy clinic, or in your child’s school or daycare.
Treatment frequency is geared to help your child make meaningful progress toward their speech therapy goals.
How long does autism speech therapy for kids typically last?
The duration of your child’s speech therapy depends on individual factors. Some children may see a speech therapist for months, others for years. Some may be seen on-and-off, depending on motivation, needs, and your availability.
Most children with autism benefit from seeing a speech therapist for a long-term plan. This is because autism impacts many areas of children’s development. Speech therapy can help your child learn skills they need at different levels of their development.
Can parents and caregivers be involved in autism speech therapy for kids?
Absolutely! In fact, parental involvement is strongly encouraged, especially in early intervention. Studies show parental involvement in speech therapy benefits children with all types of issues. You are the expert on your child with autism, so you can support your speech therapist in treatment, just as they can support you.
How often should my child attend autism speech therapy sessions?
Your speech therapist will determine the ideal frequency for your child’s speech therapy sessions. It’s very important that your child attend as often as possible. This is the best way for them to make progress toward their long and short term goals.
If you have trouble making scheduled sessions, discuss options with your speech therapist. Together, you can work to find a solution that benefits everyone.
Can speech therapy completely eliminate all communication difficulties in children with autism?
Speech therapists are careful not to offer guarantees that their services are a cure for communication issues. Autism is a condition that affects how the brain is structured and works, and this can cause many different issues in communication.
What is known is the positive impact speech therapy has on improving the communication skills of children with autism. Your child with autism deserves to communicate as effectively as possible. A speech therapist can help them enhance their language skills. This can help them be a more effective communicator, who is able to participate more fully in the world.
How can I support my autistic child’s progress in speech therapy at home?
Your speech therapist will be happy to offer you guidance to support your autistic child at home. They can provide you with activities, resources, and training to create therapy opportunities at home.
Some kids with autism benefit from home activities like: sensory bins, picture schedules, and social games. There are many resources available online to offer parents ideas that may be of interest to your child.
Speech therapy has many positive effects on kids with autism. It can help improve social skills, language knowledge and use, and vocal skills. It can also reduce behavioral issues by developing routines and managing expectations. Speech therapists can create systems and devices to support receptive and expressive language. This may include picture boards and AAC devices.
Your speech therapist can also help and support you in understanding and advocating for your preferred language. In the autism community, some prefer identity-first language, while others opt for person-first. Identity-first language celebrates autism as an integral part of a person’s identity. Person-first language, in contrast, always seeks to put a person before their diagnosis. It’s important for individuals with autism to use the terms that most resonate with them. Then, they can guide others in how they prefer to be referred to.
If you’re the parent of a child with known or suspected autism, it’s important to reach out for the help and support that’s available to you.
Your child’s school, teachers, and pediatrician are all great sources of information and resources. You can ask their advice and enlist their support in connecting with speech therapists in your area who can work with your child. The right speech therapist for you is out there, and they’re ready to support your child in their communication skills development.
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