Autism and Language Development

When someone receives an autism diagnosis, language development can be among one of the key concerns. It’s important to remember firstly that autism exists on a spectrum and communication can vary just like any other support need.

Why do people lose their ability to communicate in a certain way?

There is no simple explanation as to why this might happen. It is important that if our child’s language development appears to regress that we are patient and understanding while remaining positive and encouraging. Remember in the world of autism that everyone’s journey of language development is unique.

Why does language develop in different ways?

It’s important to remember that regardless of autism, language development in the early years is extremely variable in all children. Each child is different. Verbal language will not develop at the same rate for everyone, sometimes it may not develop until later in life and some people will not use verbal language to communicate. This is okay. The trajectory of language development is different from person to person. For some people, they might have a large vocabulary of words that they use, but might be struggling to understand language or to understand the social aspects of communication. Building communication is about focusing on peoples’ strengths and supporting them in the aspects of communication that they find challenging.

What should I do if I am concerned about my child’s language development?

It is important that if our child’s language development appears to regress we are patient and understanding while remaining positive and encouraging. Remember in the world of autism everyone’s journey of language development is unique. You could refer to typical milestones of development to track your child’s progress. The HSE has some useful information about what you might typically see at different stages of your child’s development. If your child is attending any form of pre-school, it could be useful to ask the teachers if they have any concerns about their communication and for some more informal advice, and they may be able to direct you somewhere that you can seek some further help. 

If you are concerned about your child’s language development (especially if your child has not received an autism assessment) in any way you can talk to a professional to get some general advice about what may or may not be typical language development. The outcome will be positive no matter what, it will give you peace of mind or it could be your first step to getting some extra support for your child. You can contact local Speech and Language Therapy services directly, or through your GP or other health worker

What terminology should I use when describing my child’s language development?

People often describe language skills based on whether someone uses speech to communicate (verbal) or does not. In the past people typically used the term “non-verbal” to describe delayed language development. This term would suggest that an individual has no communication ability when they might be using an alternative means of communication, such as gestures, sign language or a communication device. The term “non-verbal autism” could be offensive and an inaccurate description of an autistic person’s language development. Some people prefer the term “pre-verbal” because this term would indicate that a person’s language is still developing and it does not deny their current abilities or what other abilities they might develop further in the future. Other terms used include “minimally verbal” and “early communicators”. If you have a term that you prefer you can request that other people also use this term.

What can I do at home to promote my child’s language development?

The home is an ideal autism-friendly space to start working on promoting your child’s language development. Communication is all about developing language skills in natural, everyday settings and learning in real life scenarios. Communication centres on interactions, sending a message and understanding a message. At home there are plenty of opportunities to interact. We must think, what opportunities for communication can I build into these interactions? 

Parents can be really good at knowing what their children want. Even without speech, we can often predict our child’s needs or wants through subtle hints in communication such as a gesture or a facial expression. Sometimes, although we may be able to predict what it is our child needs, we must allow them to independently communicate to us what that is. For example, asking “Show me what you want” and allowing them to gesture to you what they are looking for. You could offer a choice between two items. These are very basic, but effective and autism-friendly ways of encouraging your child’s language development. 

Similarly, we can introduce opportunities for communication in routine activities. For example, using a gesture of brushing your finger across your mouth to indicate that you are now going to brush your teeth. This helps your child to understand what is coming next. What you may start to see is that your child begins to mirror this gesture.

Spend time watching what your child is interested in. Your child’s interests provide valuable ways of introducing communication at home. If your child is interested in a game for example, spend time playing that game with them, encouraging communication as you do so, feeding in relevant language as they are expressing interest in the activity.

Imitation is another way to foster opportunities for communication with your child. If we mirror what our child is saying or doing, it allows them to notice us more. They realise that we are really noticing what they are doing and we are responding to them, meaning they will be more attentive. 

Regardless of an autism diagnosis, a parent is typically an expert in their child’s language abilities, noticing any developments and improvements in their communication. Use this expertise to your advantage! Support your child by gradually encouraging more challenging language or communication skills as you notice improvements. 

Will autistic people struggle to learn new languages?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to language development and therefore we cannot make generalisations about autistic people and their ability to learn new languages. Some autistic people have very strong linguistic skills and will respond very well to learning more than one language. For other people, learning a new language will present an added stress or difficulty. It is important that we have a flexible approach to bilingualism. It is important that people who are interested in learning a new language are provided with the opportunity to do so and are supported in doing so. 

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