Understanding Speech Therapy For Kids On The Autism Spectrum

Kids on the autism spectrum often struggle with communication skills. For this reason, speech therapy is a common part of their treatment plan. If your child's pediatrician has suggested that you pursue speech therapy, it's important that you understand what's ahead. When you know what kinds of struggles your child is likely to face and how the therapist can help, you'll be in a better position to support the treatment and help your child to build stronger communication skills.

What Kinds Of Struggles Might Your Child Have?

Children with autism spectrum disorders often have many different communication-related struggles. These problems can range from moderate social interaction problems to a complete inability to communicate. Autism is a spectrum disorder, so some children may have impeccable verbal skills but lack the ability to relate to others while still other children are unable to speak at all or even acknowledge that others are present in the room.

For kids with strong verbal skills, you may even find that they have a vocabulary that is intellectually far beyond their physical age. But kids with all levels of communication struggles may have difficulty communicating exactly what they need or want, or may have trouble with following directions in any environment.  

Repetitive speech patterns are also a common problem for kids on the spectrum, as is an inability to maintain a traditional conversational exchange. Sometimes kids have problems with reading body language, following non-verbal cues or answering questions, even when they know the answer. You might even notice that your child speaks in a monotone, robotic or awkwardly pitched tone even in normal conversation.

What Will Happen With The Speech Therapist?

The first step in speech therapy is usually a comprehensive assessment. The therapist will review the documents from your pediatrician to understand why the referral was made to begin with, but will then follow up with an assessment of their own that's more comprehensive and focuses solely on communication skills. It is important for the therapist to see your child's communication skills first-hand to identify the key concerns as well as the areas that your child is successful with.

One of the things that you can expect is for the therapist to play with your child. This helps to showcase how your child interacts with others as well as some of his or her conversational skills. Then, you'll likely find that he or she wants to watch your child play with other kids to see the interaction with those on his or her level.

In addition, you will be asked to spend some time with your child under observation so that the therapist can see the interactions with you, since you are likely the one your child feels safest with and interacts with the most. If your child is grade-school age, the therapist may also want to evaluate your child's reading and writing ability.

What Happens After The Evaluation?

Once the evaluation is complete, the therapist will develop a treatment plan that focuses on reinforcing your child's strengths and helping to build skills that overcome the weaknesses. In some cases, that means teaching coping mechanisms, such as in cases of vocalizations caused by stress, while in other cases it means teaching the nuances of facial expression cues and normal conversation. Much of the therapy will be done through practical application, which means communication during play, role playing and positive reinforcement. You will be expected to play an active part in this treatment so that you can strengthen these skills at home.

For many children diagnosed with a spectrum disorder, speech therapy is a necessity. If you have any concerns about your child's ability to communicate, take time to express those worries to your child's pediatrician. He or she can do a general assessment to determine if a referral is needed for more specialized therapy.