Speech Therapy for Autistic Kids: Why an Individualized Approach Works Best

Autism looms large in the minds of parents, educators, speech therapists, and everyone else involved in teaching and supporting children. More and more, it’s coming to be known by a slightly different name: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The term “spectrum” is the key here. It refers to the fact that autism is an umbrella, not a spotlight. While many kids and adults fall under the umbrella of autism, the strengths they possess and the challenges they face vary widely.

While autism manifests in many different ways, and encompasses many degrees of difficulty, the unifying factor is that those with autism grapple with impaired communication and social interaction. These challenges extend to both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Speech therapy tackles these challenges head on. Due to our interactions with children at a young age, and our focus on their communication skills, it is often speech therapists who play an integral role in first recognizing the signs of autism and setting children and their guardians on a path to diagnosis.

Communicating with Autism

When people think of speech therapy, they often assume that it is focused exclusively on speech. In other words, they imagine that the children in speech therapy know what to do, they just need some help fine tuning it. Maybe they have a lisp, or a stutter, or another pronunciation issue that’s tripping them up. They meet with their speech therapist, correct the issue, and voila!

When it comes to kids with autism, the challenges are more fundamental. It’s less of a struggle to speak, and more of a struggle to communicate. These children often have difficulty understanding and making sense of the myriad complexities of communication that many of us take for granted.

Children with autism may be completely non-verbal. They may communicate only in sounds, like grunts or cries. Some rely on echolalia, where, for the most part, they parrot back the words of the person speaking to them. Other kids may have a mastery of speech and vocabulary far beyond their years, yet deliver their words in an unexpressive monotone. Or they have trouble picking up on the tone of others and reacting accordingly.

The challenges are not limited to words alone. An active conversation requires a wealth of skills. Eye contact, hand gestures, tone of voice, sarcasm, humor—each of these are tools we use to communicate. in addition to using them ourselves, we have to interpret them when they’re used by others. A biting insult and a sarcastic quip may use exactly the same words; we rely on these interpretations to tell the difference between the two.

Spontaneity is another area where autistic children can struggle. They may answer questions or otherwise speak when prompted, but fail to initiate conversation themselves. They may be upset, or want something, but lack the ability to voice those concerns.

Speech Therapy for Kids with Autism

“Speech therapy” is a helpful term, but like autism, it paints a very limited picture. The goal of speech therapy is to coordinate the mechanics of speech with the cues and guidelines of language and social interaction. In short, we don’t just help kids speak—we help them communicate. The approach we take differs for each child who comes into Bliss Speech & Hearing Services. That individuality in treatment is paramount when it comes to helping children with autism effectively communicate with the world around them.

To begin our work with each child, we sit down for an individual evaluation. We seek to understand your concerns, the concerns of your child, and the specific issues that are presenting difficulty. From there, we set specific goals that create a path toward fluent, engaged conversation.

As we said above, a child with autism may have trouble initiating conversation, and communicating their wants and needs. Their communication may be limited to responding to prompts. Part of our work is to taper off those prompts, and gradually shift the onus of communication onto the child. And we work to equip the child with the tools they need in order to communicate in everyday situations. The progression can stem from telling a child exactly what to say in a given situation, to a simple prompt like “use your words,” down to purely visual clues.

Part of an effective individual speech therapy plan is involving the specific people in a child’s life. Many times, children with autism have difficulty when it comes to generalizing skills. They may be perfectly fluent with their speech therapist here at our Dallas, Texas speech therapy center, but remain unable to communicate in a different setting or with a different person. That’s why we train other adults in a child’s life. As the child learns to apply their newfound communication skills in ever more situations with ever more people, the world opens up before them.

Our work with autistic children also extends into the various scenarios that make up each and every day. The rules and requirements of communication are different during a meal than they are during a class. Children speak differently with teachers and parents than they do with their peers. Conversation of all sorts is peppered with idioms and expressions that make no literal sense, but serve a metaphorical or illustrative purpose in the conversation.

Parsing these differences is something we do hundreds of times each day without giving it much thought. But for kids with autism, these differences may not even seem to exist. Or if they do, they’re difficult to comprehend. But not every autistic child gets tripped up by the same things. That’s why, for us, “autism” is the start of the journey with a child, not the end point.

Autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Luckily, our speech therapists have never taken a one-size-fits all-approach. At Bliss Speech & Hearing Services, we take the time to get to know every child and family that walks through our doors. Together, we work to help children embrace their strengths and overcome the obstacles in their way, empowering them to interact meaningfully with the world around them.

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