Is Late Speech a Sign of Autism?

Late speech isn't always a sign of autism -- but it might be.

Pediatrician with little boy
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Johnny isn't talking at all at age two. But while he isn't using words yet, he's using babbling sounds and body language to communicate with the people around him. He's asking for what he wants, engages with other people, and enjoys playing with his parents and siblings.

Bobby is the same age as Johnny. Bobby does have a few words -- but he doesn't use them to communicate. Instead, he repeats them over and over to himself.

Bobby has not yet figured out how to use gestures, sounds, or words to ask for something he wants. His parents find it almost impossible to hold his attention for more than a few seconds.

Johnny may have a speech delay that requires some form of early intervention. Bobby, however, despite the fact that he does have the use of a few words, may be exhibiting early signs of autism.

As typical babies develop, they quickly learn that communication is the key to getting what they want. Long before they learn to use spoken language, little ones make eye contact, pull on sleeves, babble, point, and otherwise work hard to get their point across to adults and older children. Over time, typical children learn to use spoken language because they get positive results from doing so.

Children with autism, however, according to the National Institutes of Health, may:

  1. Fail or be slow to respond to their name or other verbal attempts to gain their attention
  1. Fail or be slow to develop gestures, such as pointing and showing things to others
  2. Coo and babble in the first year of life, but then stop doing so
  3. Develop language at a delayed pace
  4. Learn to communicate using pictures or their own sign language
  5. Speak only in single words or repeat certain phrases over and over, seeming unable to combine words into meaningful sentences
  1. Repeat words or phrases that they hear, a condition called echolalia
  2. Use words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with the child's way of communicating.

The bottom line?

Speech delays and differences are a hallmark of autism, and even those individuals who develop speech at a typical rate as toddlers may have a difficult time using spoken language effectively as they get older. They may use different vocal patterns, have a hard time reading or using body language, or continue to repeat sounds as a form of self-stimulation rather than as a means of communication.

Speech delays alone, however, are not an indication of autism. Speech delays and differences may be symptoms of many other disorders and delays, ranging from hearing issues to childhood apraxia of speech.

Learn More About Autism Symptoms, Types of Autism and Autism Diagnosis


    National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Article on Speech and Language. NIH Publication No. 00-4781 April 2000

    National Institutes of Health. Is Baby Babbling on Schedule? Milestones in Speech and Language. NIH News in Health. September, 2007.

    National Institutes of Health.  A Parent's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

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