How Speech Therapy Benefits Children with Autism

Virtually Every Child with Autism Can Benefit from Speech Therapy

Teacher helping student in classroom
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What Exactly IS a Speech Therapist?

Speech therapy involves the treatment of speech and communication disorders - which means it's a very wide-ranging field. A certified speech pathologist (sometimes called a therapist) must hold a master's degree. That person may work in a private setting, a clinic, a school, or an institution, and may well work as part of an educational team. They use a wide range of tools and interventions, ranging from toys and play-like therapy to formal tests and speech curricula.

Why Would a Person With Autism Need to See a Speech Therapist?

Almost anyone diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder will be recommended for speech therapy. This may seem odd, as many autistic people are either non-verbal (at the lower end of the spectrum) or extremely verbal (at the upper end of the spectrum). But even very verbal people with Asperger Syndrome are likely to misuse and misunderstand language on a regular basis. And even non-verbal people can certainly develop communication skills - and may develop spoken language skills over time.

What Does a Speech Therapist Do for People with Autism?

Speech therapy involves much more than than simply teaching a child to correctly pronounce words. In fact, a speech therapist working with an autistic child or adult may work on a wide range of skills including:

  • Non-verbal communication. This may include teaching gestural communication, or training with PECS (picture exchange cards), electronic talking devices, and other non-verbal communication tools.
  • Speech pragmatics. It's all well and good to know how to say "good morning." But it's just as important to know when, how and to whom you should say it.
  • Conversation skills. Knowing how to make statements is not the same thing as carrying on conversations. Speech therapists may work on back-and-forth exchange, sometimes known as "joint attention."
  • Concept skills. A person's ability to state abstract concepts doesn't always reflect their ability to understand them. Autistic people often have a tough time with ideas like "few," "justice," and "liberty." Speech therapists may work on building concept skills.
  • Social skills. Along with play therapists, occupational therapists, and people in specific areas of expertise such as recreational therapy and arts therapy, speech therapists often help people with autism to build social communication skills. Such skills include the ability to ask and answer questions, stand at an appropriate distance from a conversational partner, assess the "mood" of a room (or a person), and more.

How Can I Find a Qualified Speech Therapist?

Because speech-language therapy is so well-established, it is very likely that your medical insurance will cover all or part of the cost. It's also quite likely that your child's school or early intervention provider will provide the service for free. If you choose to go the private route, you may need to pay the therapist in advance and then request reimbursement from your insurance company.

It's always important to remember, however, that any therapist must be a good personal match for your child's needs.

For that reason, you will want to meet, interview, and observe the therapist as they work with your child. You may also wish to ask the therapist for references from parents with children whose needs are similar to your child's. Some therapists are terrific with verbal children but less effective with non-verbal children, and vice versa.

For more information about finding a qualified speech-language therapist, contact the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).