Autism and Language Development
One of the distinctive features of children with autism is failure to develop sufficient communication skills.
Autism has been identified as language disorder, at its core. Children with autism are often unresponsive to
conversation with others. This has led researchers to question whether autism involves specific obstacles
with comprehension. Even when autistic children do engage and respond to others, they may contribute little
to the current discussion; have difficulty maintaining the conversational topic, or offer unrelated comments.
These dialogue shortcomings are seen as crucial to the characteristics of autism they counterpart and are
directly connected to the social and communicative impairments.

Despite attempts to teach oral communication skills to children with autism, many of these children continue
to experience trouble in acquiring purposeful speech. Therefore, clinicians are often assigned with the
decision of choosing and facilitating an assisted or independent reinforcing or alternative communication
method for these individuals. However, assisted communication methods, vary from low (e.g., pictures) to
high tech (e.g., speech out put devices), have been used with children with autism, independent methods of
communication (e.g., gestures as communication or sign language) continue to be recommended as well to
provide children with autism a supportive or alternative means of communication.

Delays in language development and impairments in communication ability symbolize an important feature of
autism. Even in classic Autism Disorder the language and communication deficiency can be quite diverse.
These impairments can range from a delay in the development of expressive language to an entire lack of
expressive language, from problems with initiating or sustaining a conversation to use of inflexible,
repetitive, and peculiar language. Speech and language disorders refer to problems in communication and
related areas such as oral motor function. These delays and disorders range from simple sound substitutions
to the inability to understand the use of language or use of the oral-motor system for functional speech and
feeding.

Communication difficulties in Children with Autism

•        Unable to start or maintain a conversation
•        Develops language slowly or not at all
•        Repeats words
•        Reverses pronouns
•        Uses nonsense verses
•        Communicates with gestures instead of words
•        Has a short attention span

Characteristic language, Literal language, Echolalia, and Social Communication

Leo Kanner (prounced Conner) was a psychiatrist and physician known for his work related to autism.
Kanner was the first to observe that children with autism often simply echo the words, phrases, or
sentences spoken by others. This classical feature of autistic language, known as echolalia, is most typical
of children who have very little practical language. Echolalic speech often holds the exact words and pitch
used by others either immediately or after some time. It is now viewed as having some helpful value for
children with autism. Echolalia may help children with autism to maintain some role in the ongoing
communication even when they either do not understand or have not yet acquired the practical or linguistic
skills needed to respond more appropriately.

Kanner also noted the autistic child’s tendency to use words with special or unique meanings not shared by

others. The use of peculiar vocabulary terms, or new phrases, has been found even in higher functioning
children and adults with autism, suggesting that it does not indicate a developmental phase in acquirement.
The source of these “words” and their meaning has not been clarified.

Another striking feature of autistic children’s use of language is their reversal of pronouns—referring to
themselves as “you” and their conversational partner as “I.” Although reversing personal pronouns is not
unique to autism, it does occur more frequently in this group than in any other population and pronoun
reversals are viewed as important in the diagnosis of this disorder. The reversals reflect difficulties in
perception the idea of self and other as is required in variable dialogue roles between speaker and listener.

Delays in spoken language: When parents of children with autism are interviewed, the majority of these
parents say that their child’s language skills were slow to develop.  A few parents say that their child
developed language skills in a typical manner until 1 1/2 or 2 years of age and then lost the skills that he or
she had learned.

Functions of Language: Typically developing children use language in a wide variety of circumstances (e.
g., to label, request, share experiences, ask for information, express affection, telling a story).  Children with
autism often use language in a limited number of situations and for purposeful (e.g., making requests, asking
for assistance) rather than social (e.g., sharing an experience, joining another’s play) means.

Idiosyncratic Language: Children with autism may show immediate or delayed echolalia; they repeat words
or phrases that they have heard.  At times, echoing language seems to serve a useful function by helping
children with autism process and comprehend language.  Children with autism frequently have difficulty
understanding imaginary thoughts (e.g., friendship) and abstract forms of language (e.g., pronouns).  Some
children with autism learn language by associating an object or event with a label.  This label may be
characteristic rather than one that has general meaning.  For example, a child may associate going outside
with their mommy and may say “mommy” to request going outdoors.  

Pragmatic communication: Pragmatic communication refers to social communication skills, the skills that
people use to interact with others.  Deficits in pragmatic communication are exhibited by children who are
nonverbal as well as by children who use spoken language.  Children who rely on gestures and other motor
actions to communicate may fail to approach others to share experiences or invite others to interact with
them.  Children who are verbal may fail to initiate interactions with others, maintain conversation topics,
monitor their voice volume or rate of speech, and select conversation topics that are of interest to others.

Research on Autism and Language


The study of language in children with autism has been limited almost exclusively to those children who do
acquire some functional language, either spoken or sign. Furthermore, because of the behavior difficulties
experienced by many autistic children, studies have been further limited to those who are more cooperative,
less aggressive, or self-injurious. Because of the rarity of the syndrome and the natural unwillingness
conducting research with autistic children, most studies have included very small samples, sometimes just
single case studies. These limitations mean that research in this area has not been able to capture the full
variation that is known to exist in the population. There are also so few studies that little is known about
developmental changes occurring over the course of childhood.

However, several studies have examined the frequency of communicative acts in autistic children in different
social settings. These studies generally demonstrate that children with autism are sensitive to social situations
in ways that are similar to those of very young typically developing children. Interactions with peers are the
most difficult, even for high functioning older verbal children with autism. One study collected language
samples from school-age children in their classrooms while they were engaged in free play or other casual
activities. They also observed each child in their study for several hours, spread over a number of days. The
average frequency of spontaneous communicative acts from the children with autism was just two or three
per hour, mostly directed toward an adult. Only half the children in this study spoke to a non autistic peer.

Little is known about the nonverbal autistic children because so few research studies have focused on this
group. The paring of communicative, social, and cognitive impairments that characterize this group make
them especially difficult to study. Behavior analysis has been extensively used with this population, especially
as a primary means for intervention. The future of research on language in autism will require the
development of new approaches and methods due to the complexity of the disorder.  
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