How Speech Language Pathology can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
As a profession Speech Language Pathologists diagnose and treat a variety of disorders related to speech, language and feeding. Typically a therapist will only work with a specific age range since it takes a different set of skills to work with children than it does to work with adults. Some speech language pathologists will further specialize in specific areas and disorders such as Articulation, Craniofacial Anomalies, Apraxia, or Autism Spectrum Disorders. Children are different and so are speech language pathologists. No "one" therapist, agency or therapeutic approach is right for every child. Some therapists are generalists while others are specialists. As a parent you want a speech language pathologist who specializes in the area your child is having the most difficulty. Whether it’s early language development, augmentative communication, or possibly a speech disorder there is a therapist who will be the best match for your child. It is also important to keep in mind that the term “speech therapist” is a generic title used to describe anyone who provides speech therapy. However, a Speech Language Pathologist is the most qualified. S/he is the only professional with at least a Master’s Degree and a board certification.
Speech and language are different
Speech and language are often thought to be the same thing however they are not. Language refers to our ability to understand and express ideas whereas speech refers to the actual sounds we make.
Speech and the child with ASD
Children with autism spectrum disorders may also have speech disorders. While these disorders are not a part of Autism they often coexist. For example, Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS) is a severe speech disorder which is seen in a higher percentage of children on the autistic spectrum than in the general population. Children who are diagnosed with Childhood Apraxia of Speech require intensive speech therapy in order to become intelligible. Children with autism spectrum disorders may also have articulation errors that require speech therapy. Very simple speech errors are often more difficult to treat in this population of children. Due to other more pressing concerns these speech errors are often not priorities.
Language and the child with ASD
Language is broken into two categories: Expressive and Receptive. Expressive Language refers to our ability put words together into cohesive thoughts and ideas to express press them to others. Receptive language refers to our ability to understand thoughts and ideas that are expressed to us. Language deficits are the central concern in children with autism spectrum disorders. All areas of language are impacted to different degrees depending on the diagnosis of the child with ASD. This is why speech language therapy is the key component to an effective therapy plan for a child with an autism spectrum disorder.
Language impairments in these children range from severe, in which there is no language and no means of communication, to above average expressive and receptive language with impaired pragmatic language abilities.
Pragmatic Language-Social Skills
All children with autism spectrum disorders have some degree of pragmatic language impairments. While these impairments are not always obvious to an outsider they can impact every aspect of a child’s life. Someone can have gifted intelligence and a strong command of language and still have impaired pragmatic language. Also referred to as social skills, pragmatic language refers to the verbal and non-verbal rules that dictate our social interactions. While these rules vary greatly across cultures they are something that we all use every day. Any time there is more than one person, these rules are being followed. We do not need to say anything verbally to use social skills.
A common characteristic of a social skills disorder is impaired Theory of Mind and Perspective Taking. Theory of mind is the ability to understand how different beliefs, motivations, knowledge and moods affect our own behavior as well as the behavior of those around us. Theory of Mind is a necessary component of perspective taking. Perspective taking refers to our ability to relate with others, empathize with them and see things from their perspective. In order to do this we must be able to perceive what their motivations are as well as their feeling and thoughts. An example of this would be concluding that someone is upset by noticing tears in their eyes or that their eyebrows are furrowed.
Studies show that approximately two-thirds of children on the autistic spectrum have severe food aversions which can impact their growth and development. Children with these severe food aversions are often referred to as resistant eaters or problem eaters. Children who are resistant eaters will have an extremely limited acceptance of food and will eliminate food items from their diet over time. They may even decide to bring an old favorite back. These children are very aware of imperfections in food and may refuse something that is broken or has a dark spot on it. They may also gag and vomit when presented with a new or disliked food item. A Speech Language Pathologist who specializes in picky eating/feeding can be instrumental in helping your child broaden his or her diet. S/he will work with your child and your family as needed to develop a feeding plan that will take into consideration the individual needs of your child and your family while always considering your child’s safety first.