Better Hearing and Speech Month Series: Communication Issues Related to Autism

May is Better Hearing and Speech (BHSM) month. To help bring awareness to the topic, The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has launched a new campaign as well as providing new resources intended to educate about this year’s topic “Communication Disorders are Treatable.

To participate in Better Hearing and Speech Month and to do my part to help bring awareness to this topic I have been posting about speech and hearing topics all month. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my posts on Newborn hearing screening and follow-up and Noise-induced hearing loss in children.

Communication Issues Related to Autism

Today’s post in on a topic that is near and dear to my heart: Communication Issues Related to Autism. As a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with high functioning autism I have seen first hand the challenges for a child with this diagnosis. I have also seen how early identification and help from our amazing team of teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and work that I do to connect it all at home, has made a tremendous difference. My child has an amazing personality with some fantastically unique qualities and skills. I feel that because of the support that he is gaining from his educational team, he is being taught the tools needed to effectively share those amazing qualities with the rest of the world with the minimum of help.

To help assist other parents who might be concerned about some of the behaviors that their child may be displaying, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recently spoke with Dr. Patricia Prelock, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Vermont and ASHA’s immediate past president, and a certified speech-language pathologist about knowing the signs of autism in young children and the benefits of early intervention.

One of the things that Dr Prelock highlights during her podcast is that autism can look vastly different in different children. She says that there are three general areas that categorize autism however.

She says, “It has three areas of focus, social communication, social interaction, and restricted, repetitive behaviors, interests or activities that pretty much are characteristic of the individuals with autism.”

For parents who feel like their child may have struggles in any of these areas she suggests visiting AHSA to review the checklist of signs of autism. She also talks about some of the language deficits that she looks for in identifying children with autism.

She said, “some of things that I would be concerned about would be children who have limited speech, are not babbling and cooing, which they do early on. Cooing they’re doing four to six months. Babbling right after that and putting sounds together that mix and sound like they are having conversations. Also those kids who seem to have difficulty expressing what they want or need without using the typical gestures and points that you might see. Kids are pretty much pointing between nine and twelve months and that lets us know what they want and sharing their intentions. So I would be concerned about that. Kids who are only repeating what they hear somebody else say, but not offering any new speech or language and seem to have difficulty developing the words that they need.”

She also says that some children with autism may be able to use words to express their needs and wants, but may be missing some of the social dynamics related to having a back and forth conversation with another child or adult.

She said they look for, “Deficits in social communication needed for social interaction, like how you use your eyes and body and gestures and facial expressions to connect, and difficulty in developing and maintaining and understanding relationships.”

There are also some social challenges that a parent may be aware of, that may be indicators of autism.

Dr Prelock describes those also saying,
“In terms of the social skills, I would be really worried about kids who are not able to share or show things. They don’t seem to show delight or respond to something really cool that their parent has done. The parent is showing the child a windup toy. Are they looking at the toy? Are they looking at their parent? Are they smiling? Are they showing some connection? I would also be concerned with kids who are only playing with objects and doing rote activities with them and not really engaging in pretend play or symbolic play which we typically see by the time they are 18 months. And kids who seem to be agitated and crying or screaming out or are demonstrating some behavioral challenged because they just don’t have the words or the nonverbal gestures to demonstrate that they want to communicate a message.”

And continues saying,
“And then I would look at things like how they are reacting to the world around them. Are they paying attention to what they see and hear? Are they responding to sounds and visual input? Do they have difficulty changing routines? Do they have unusual attachments to objects where they can’t be without a particular object in their hand and are they very sensitive to light or touch or different sounds? And they may also have sleep or feeding problems. But there are lots of neurodevelopmental disabilities that these challenges, so it’s really the cluster of the behavioral challenges, the communication and the priority one is the social engagement—not really looking and having that social smile and connection with their parents.”

For parents concerned that their child may be affected by some of those challenges Prelock suggests discussing them during well-child visits with physicians and pediatricians. She also says that speech and language pathologists can be valuable resources in helping parents with these issues.

She says “SLPs [speech and language pathologists] really play a key role because a number of the early symptoms relate to whether or not a child is responding to sound, whether they are cooing and babbling, whether they are pointing, and just their early social connection… a speech pathologist has real good understanding of what is expected developmentally and they can use checklists and monitor children who may have potential developmental problems.”

A parent’s own feelings and observations may be one of the best indications of a problem.

Prelock says, “I would have to say the most important information comes from caregivers and parents and so if they feel like their child is not responding the way their other children did—although all kids are different, I always say don’t be afraid to say, ‘Here is what I’m noticing’ because even if it isn’t autism, it might be something else that we can support.”

As a parent of a child with autism, I have found this to be very true of our situation. I have also found that while identifying and accepting the signs of autism was an emotional process at first, it was well worth it. Because we did this we where able to get the early intervention assistance that has helped made my son prepared and successful in school. His educational team has empowered him by giving him the tools needed to reach his potential and share his amazing, unique, innovative personality with those around him. For that, I will be forever grateful of his team of early intervention teachers.

If you feel that your child may be affected by autism or to just learn more about the topic, be sure to listen to the entire interview with Dr. Prelock available as a podcast on the AHSA website. While you are there, also check out all of the other useful information on autism including a useful check list of possible signs and indicators of children with autism.



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Emily Buys

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