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|Autism and Language Development
|Autism and Language Development
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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
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
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.