Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by unique social interaction and communication patterns, as well as repetitive behaviors or specialized interests, as outlined by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. Speech therapy for autism, conducted by skilled speech-language pathologists (SLPs), plays an essential role in supporting individuals with autism and their families. These services are tailored to address the specific communication challenges faced by those on the autism spectrum.
At CI Therapies, we embrace and celebrate neurodiversity. Our approach to speech therapy for autism is centered around respecting the individuality of each client. Our SLPs, experienced in working with clients of all ages with autism, apply neurodiversity-affirming methods in their practice. This involves recognizing that neurodivergence itself is not defined as a flaw or something to be “fixed.” In our speech therapy for children with autism, we focus on leveraging each client’s unique strengths. We collaboratively establish speech therapy goals that are not only meaningful to the client and their family but also promote the client’s autonomy and independence. This approach underscores our commitment to enhancing communication skills in a way that honors the inherent value and diversity of individuals with autism.
Speech and Language Characteristics in Autism
The speech and language characteristics of autistic individuals vary widely from person to person. Some common differences or delays that may occur include:
- Receptive language (i.e., what is understood): inconsistently responding to their name, challenges with following directions, challenges with answering questions, reduced comprehension of temporal concepts (e.g., time, days of the week)
- Expressive language (i.e., what is said): inconsistent or infrequent use of words or symbols to communicate, challenges formulating self-generated (i.e., novel) language, challenges with grammar or syntax, limited expressive vocabulary
- Pragmatic language (i.e., social communication): challenges with perspective taking, difficulty identifying emotions in self or others, reduced recognition of nonverbal cues, challenges with abstract thinking or ideation
- Speech sound production: poor motor planning for speech, reduced phonological awareness, delays in speech sound acquisition.
- Oral motor and swallowing: reduced (or heightened) oral sensitivity, poor oral motor coordination or muscle tone, strong preference for (or aversion to) certain textures or flavors.
SLPs play a critical role in addressing and further exploring characteristics of autism with the individual client and their family. SLPs at CI have the knowledge and education to meet the diversity present in autism with evidence-based and holistic speech therapy treatments for autism that are personalized to the client. In fact, SLPs are the only discipline with specialized training in in-depth language and social pragmatic assessment and treatment for individuals with an autism diagnosis. SLPs are trained in all aspects of communication, including social, emotional, and cognitive development and are central figures in autism services (Prizant, 2017).
During an evaluation, the therapist will not only look at the social communication skills, but holistically make sure to come up with appropriate goals that might also encompass additional concern or goal areas. Children on the autism spectrum may have other co-occurring speech and language disorders such as speech sound disorders (difficulty producing sounds and words) or expressive and/or receptive language disorders.
Speech Therapy Techniques for Autism Spectrum Disorder
Speech therapy at CI does not seek to teach clients how to act in a neurotypical manner but rather celebrates the unique qualities they possess while supporting client and family goal areas. Whether a client wants to learn to better self-advocate and communicate their needs to others, learn how to better get along with others, set personal boundaries, or build stronger relationships, personalized speech therapy goals specific to the client are vital to motivation and progress! Speech therapists at CI accomplish these goals through a range of therapy strategies and techniques:
- Therapist Knowledge of Gestalt Language Processing (versus Analytic Language Processing):
Research shows that the majority of individuals with autism are also gestalt language processors, making knowledge in this type of development of language vital to clients and making communication progress. Many of CI’s speech therapists are formally trained in the Natural Language Acquisition (NLA) framework and are knowledgeable about progression through various stages of language acquisition for gestalt language processors.
*See blog post under “resources” for more information on gestalt language processing What’s the Scoop on Gestalt Language Processing?
- Play Therapy for Autism
At CI, PLAY is at the forefront of our treatment because of evidence showing that children learn best when they are playing. The National Library of Medicine sums the importance of play up beautifully through their article, “Play Therapy in Children with Autism: Its Role, Limitations, and Implications”:
“Play is a fundamental daily activity that allows children to learn and master various skills involving negotiation abilities, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, improving their manual dexterity, sharing, decision-making, and working within a group. Play helps children to discover their interests. Play promotes the integration of mental development with social life.” (Elbeltagi et. al., 2023).
There are a range of speech-therapy related goals that can be targeted through play therapy for autism, including but not limited to:
- Pretend play: modeling and expanding development of imaginative play through role playing and object/toy manipulation.
- Vocabulary expansion: introducing and reinforcing new vocabulary within various play scenarios and settings
- Social interaction: fostering turn taking, sharing, compromise, and collaboration within pretend play skills
- Narrative development: supporting the ability to create and narrate stories, enhancing language structure and coherence
- Problem solving skills: using play to develop problems and solutions, make decisions, and expand critical thinking
- Initiation and continuation of play: facilitating the ability initiate play with another peer and what language to use to gain entrance into an existing play scheme
- Self advocacy during play: modeling how to productively advocate for one’s preferences or ideas within play
- Turn taking: guiding interactions to promote active listening and observation
- Perspective taking: identifying the thoughts and feelings of others (and self) and supporting the ability to predict the potential impact of different actions/reactions
Oftentimes, structured peer plays with other clients are utilized during therapy sessions. Engagement and connection with other clients at CI is at the forefront of treatment. This includes finding peers who have similar interests and strategically setting up speech sessions to target incidental situations that foster client insight and progress towards meaningful goals, not just hypothetical practice! Hands on learning and practice is key to navigating and learning about social communication.
The therapist follows the child’s lead and adapts the tools and environment to meet the specific client’s goals. Play is often on the floor or in the sensory gym, due to individuals with autism responding best when their sensory system is engaged and regulated (versus sitting at a table).
- The Use of Technology
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
AAC is a broad term that encompasses any form of communication other than verbal speech that is used to express wants, needs, thoughts, and ideas. AAC devices can either be low-tech (e.g., American Sign Language [ASL], communication boards), or high-tech (e.g., iPad+ speech programs). These devices can either be used to supplement or replace spoken language (or “mouth speech”).
Individuals with autism may benefit from the use of AAC to facilitate successful communication. Whether the individual is nonspeaking or a verbally communicator, AAC promotes successful and meaningful communication with communication partners. For non-speaking individuals, the device may be their main source of verbal output. For speaking communicators, AAC aids in repairing communication breakdowns or helps the individuals think of a desired word or message. SLPs have the knowledge and training to trial AAC methods and train families on use of AAC. For more information, check out our AAC blog post, Debunking the Most Common Myths about AAC.
Research has found that individuals with autism may be more responsive when information is presented visually in a step-by-step manner than when it is presented in an auditory manner (Havlik, Katherine). A visual schedule is an image-based tool (pictures, text, symbols, etc.) that helps individuals with autism follow a routine, transition between activities, learn/develop a new skill (brushing teeth, engage in a conversation), and reduce dependence on caretakers when completing daily activities. Visual schedules can be high or low tech. Visual schedules are consistently utilized within therapy sessions at CI as well as provided for home use, as applicable.
- Transitional Skills
Working on conversational skills, interview & job skills, and the overall transition to adulthood can be incredibly helpful for older autistic individuals. Enhancing conversational abilities fosters social interactions, connections, and navigating various social contexts. Regarding job interviews and longevity with career success, honing in on interview and job skills is pivotal in securing employment and thriving within the workplace. Transitioning to adulthood involves independent living, managing responsibilities, and adapting to new environments – all of which speech therapy can provide through individualized support and skill-building to empower autistic people to lead fulfilling lives. At CI, our therapists provide individualized therapy to promote confidence, independence, and successful integration into adult life.
Benefits of Speech Therapy in Autism Treatment
There are many benefits of speech therapy for autism. SLPs at CI individualize their therapeutic approach based on each client’s unique strengths and areas for growth in order to ensure meaningful progress for clients, no matter their developmental level. By meeting each individual where they’re at each day, over time therapists can help clients improve speech sound production, grow their flexible language use, expand their vocabulary, increase access to written language, support their social cognition, or diversify their food repertoire. As the client’s speech and language skills grow, so too does their confidence in their role as an effective communicator, thereby reducing frustration or topic abandonment. Speech therapy can also support an individual’s ability to participate fully in the school setting in order to meet academic goals and expectations, as well as in the social setting to navigate peer relationships. Finally, speech therapists can help guide conversations about autism with clients and families in order to learn more about the diagnosis. By talking about autism openly and positively, we can provide clients with a better understanding of their individual strengths and differences which can empower them to advocate for their needs, persevere through challenges, and boost their confidence and independence.
Starting Your Journey with CI Therapies
If you’re looking for autism spectrum speech therapy in the Madison or Wausau, WI areas, look no further than CI! What does getting started with services look like? We typically start the therapy journey by scheduling an initial evaluation with an SLP. During the evaluation, the SLP will complete a comprehensive assessment of your child’s strengths and areas of improvement as well as get to know your child and their interests, which will be at the forefront of ongoing therapy. Your concerns will be heard and personalized goals and therapy planned for your child. Frequency and duration recommendations will also be provided. Continuous support and resources will also be made available during the course of treatment.
Maximizing Potential, Building Connections: Why Speech Therapy Matters for Autism
In summary, social communication is vital to daily interaction and formulating personally meaningful relationships. SLPs play a vital role in providing speech therapy for autism and utilize evidence-based approaches to achieve goals important to the client and their family. Caregivers are encouraged to explore speech therapy options for autism to ensure that maximum potential is reached!
Empowering Your Child’s Voice: Taking the First Step Towards Speech Therapy for Autism
Wondering what to do next and looking for autism spectrum speech therapy? Give us a call at 608-819-6394 or schedule a free consultation here. We will guide you through next steps, including but not limited to: offering a free consultation where you can share your concerns, helping you navigate insurance, and getting you scheduled with an SLP with specialized training in in-depth language and social skill assessment for individuals with an autism diagnosis.
Be sure to spread the word about the outstanding speech therapy CI provides for individuals with autism, regardless of their age, by sharing this article with the autism community. We want everyone to be able to reap the benefits!
Interested in learning more? Check out these related articles:
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Retrieved December 12, 2023, from https://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/autism/
Prizant, Barry M. SLPs and Autism: How Far We Have Come. ASHA leader.
Havlik, Katherine. Visual Schedules: A Practical Guide for Families. US Office of Education Personnel Preparation Project Grant H325K12306.
Play therapy in children with autism: Its role, implications, and limitations. World J Clin Pediatr. 2023 Jan 9;12(1):1-22. doi: 10.5409/wjcp.v12.i1.1. PMID: 36685315; PMCID: PMC9850869.