Autistic people often have challenges with social communication and interaction. Speech therapy can help them communicate more meaningfully and effectively by building their communication and social skills.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to learn, behave, communicate, and interact with others.
About 25–30% of autistic people are minimally verbal or fail to develop functional language.
Speech therapy can be important in helping autistic people develop or improve their speech and language skills to help them communicate and interact better.
This article explores the role of speech therapy in treating autism and its benefits and effectiveness.
Speech therapists are allied health professionals who treat a wide range of communication and swallowing problems in children and adults.
They are also called speech-language pathologists (SLPs), speech pathologists (SPs), and speech-language therapists (SLTs).
SLPs are professionals with a master’s degree or doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.) from an accredited university and have a license to practice in their state.
The cost of speech therapy treatment varies greatly depending on the length of sessions, location, and provider. It typically ranges from $100 to $250 per hour.
Most private health insurance plans typically cover it. Medicare Part B also covers medically necessary speech therapy services.
The aim of speech therapy for autism is to improve people’s communication abilities. However, this is not only about learning to say words.
We discuss the benefits of using speech therapy for autistic people below.
Many autistic children receive early intervention treatment. SLPs can help children develop pre-language skills, such as eye contact, gestures, and other vocalizations to help them communicate.
Many autistic children have difficulty picking up subtle social cues in body language. SLPs can help them recognize these physical signals.
They can also explore augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), for instance, gestures, picture cards, and electronic devices to help them communicate.
SLPs train and practice with autistic children on the use of AAC systems. A 2021 study also suggests that AAC systems help facilitate and enhance communication.
A similar system, called the picture exchange communication system (PECS), is another tool SLPs use to promote communication in autistic children.
A 2020 review found that using PECS helped encourage autistic children to initiate requests.
Learn more about nonverbal autism.
SLPs can also help autistic children with fluency issues, such as stuttering and cluttering. They can help the children speak more smoothly and effortlessly.
Speaking requires the coordination of different structures. SLPs can help autistic children have better control and coordination or strengthen the muscles in their mouth, jaw, and neck to produce sounds and sound patterns better.
SLPs can help them lessen grammar mistakes and construct better sentences.
Some autistic children tend to repeat words or sounds, known as echolalia.
SLPs can help these children overcome echolalia and develop functional speech.
SLPs can coach autistic people on how to communicate in different settings. They can do this in a combination of one-on-one therapy and a social skills group.
This also involves changing language depending on who the listener is and following rules, such as taking turns and staying on topic.
Transition to work
SLPs can help autistic people write cover letters, prepare for an interview, advocate for themselves, and learn how to communicate with their colleagues.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) lists activities categorized by age that parents can do at home to encourage speech and language development.
Read below for more detail.
Birth to 2 years
- Point out colors and shapes.
- Say sounds, such as “ma,” “ba,” and “da,” and try to get your baby to say them back to you.
- Add on to what your baby says, e.g., if your baby says “mama,” respond by saying “here is mama.”
- Count what you see.
- Talk about animal sounds to help your baby connect sounds, such as animals.
- Read to your child and choose books with large, colorful pictures. Get them to point to and name objects.
2 to 4 years
- Ask questions that include a choice, e.g., “do you want an apple or an orange?”
- Repeat what your child says to show you understand.
- Speak clearly to your child and model good speech.
- Show pictures of familiar people and places, and talk about who they are or what happened there.
- Help your child learn new words by naming body parts and talking about their purpose, e.g., “I smell flowers with my nose.”
4 to 6 years
- Praise your child when they tell you something, and show you understand what they have said.
- Play guessing games, and get your child to guess what you are describing, e.g., “we use this to sweep the floor.”
- Get your child’s attention before you talk.
- Go grocery shopping and talk about the items you will buy. Talk about sizes, shapes, weights, and how many things you need.
- Keep helping your child learn new words. Explain what words mean when new words come up in conversation, and use them in a way they would understand, e.g., “I think I will drive this vehicle to the store.”
The potential downsides of speech therapy can be practical.
Attending speech therapy can be time-consuming for both parents and children. Aside from the therapy sessions, parents need to carry out activities and strategies at home.
If a child receives therapy from school, it may interrupt their schedule and result in missed classes.
Cost can be a concern if parents opt for private speech therapy instead of paying for the service using health insurance.
It is important to note that some complementary approaches require more research to establish their effectiveness.
- applied behavior analysis (ABA)
- occupational therapy, which typically provides sensory integration therapy
- physical therapy
- educational approaches, such as Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communications Handicapped Children (TEACCH)
- social-relational approaches, including the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) model and the Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based (DIR) model, also known as Floor time
- medications for symptoms, such as self-injurious behaviors (SIBs), or co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety and depression
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- complementary and alternative treatments, including art therapy, relaxation therapies, and animal therapy — such as hippotherapy
Parents and carers who wish to understand more about the evidence supporting autism treatment can find further information on the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).
SLPs typically provide services in the following settings:
- private practices
- doctor’s offices
- colleges and universities
- rehabilitation centers
- residential healthcare facilities
A person may also use the directories from Autism Speaks and ASHA to look for a speech therapist.
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can be helpful in the care of autistic children. Through SLP interventions, children with autism may learn ways to improve their communication and interaction skills.
SLPs use various methods to help autistic children express themselves more effectively, including language development activities and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems.
Other treatments are available to help autistic children, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), occupational therapy, physical therapy, and others.
Parents and carers who want to learn which treatment is best for their child should consult a professional, such as a developmental pediatrician or neurologist.