Speech Therapy Helps Kids With Autism in Surprising Ways

For your child with autism, speech therapy can build overall communication skills. An expert from a.c.e. Therapies shares insight.

You might have a preconceived idea of the goals of speech therapy and how they relate to actual speech. But for your child with autism, speech therapy can support a wide variety of skills important to their success. The benefits can be considerable.

For all children, but especially those with autism spectrum disorder, speech-language therapy is highly individualized, says Anya Darling, MS, CCC-SLP/L, Lead Clinical Education Therapist with Spot On Therapies in Naperville, a division of a.c.e. Therapies, a locally owned ABA clinic that supports children with autism and other behavioral challenges and disabilities in Lockport, Merrionette Park, Naperville and Palos Heights. You may be surprised to learn that speech therapy isn’t just about speech.

“Generally, patients with autism can benefit from speech-language therapy. We individualize therapy based on needs but also on strengths and preferences,” Darling says.

A broad goal of speech-language therapy for a child with autism is to build overall communication skills that can be used in all settings, including home and school environments, Darling says. This goes far beyond the ability to form words and sentences to include the many ways we communicate in social situations.

“When we talk about speech therapy, the implication is that we are just working on speech,” Darling says. “A lot of times, parents will say their child’s speech is fine, but our field encompasses a lot more than speech and language skills. In the end, my job is to make sure my patient is confident and able to share their thoughts and beliefs.”

The many interesting roles for speech therapy

Speech-language therapy can encompass many skills related to communication, so Darling shares some hypothetical situations to illustrate how speech-language therapy can benefit children with autism based on their individualized needs and strengths.

These four examples show the wide variety of skills supported by speech-language therapy and how therapy can impact a child’s outcome.

  • The first patient may require more support in building overall communication skills. “For this child, we help build multimodal communication. They’re not using spoken words but using gestures, body placement, behavior and signs to communicate,” Darling says. Here, she may lean into signs to build a greater variety of core vocabulary. “We might introduce picture symbols and different forms of communication to get their needs met.”
  • A second patient might use spoken words but could benefit from increased social communication to engage with peers and family. “This can mean a variety of things. We might work on how to carry on a conversation with another peer. Maybe the child doesn’t feel comfortable self-advocating,” Darling says. “A lot of times, especially in a school setting, the older you get, the more pressure there is to be independent. A child might be at an age where they are expected to be doing certain things, but without skills, how can we expect them to do these things?” Darling is careful to point out that in these situations, the goal is not to change a child, but support them to their own comfort level. “Maybe in social settings, I want to talk about something and you don’t, and that’s natural. It all boils down to the connection a child has with peers and family. That connection is what communication is all about.”
  • A third patient’s need may be literacy-based. In this situation, speech-language therapy would focus on reading and writing and building skills to support confidence in these abilities.
  • A fourth patient might need help building problem solving and executive functioning skills, and speech-language therapy will help increase a child’s ability to plan and organize and even focus on impulse control.

In some cases, Darling says, co-treatment with a skilled occupational therapist can help a child access language by addressing a child’s sensory needs. “An occupational therapist can help a child organize their body so the child is ready to accept the complexity of language, communication and speech sound therapy. It can make a big difference,” she says.

In all situations, children with autism benefit most when they and their families are committed to speech-language therapy, says Darling. “Therapy can be demanding, so we want to make sure there is buy-in from the family and the patient.”

Learn more about a.c.e. Therapies at ace-therapies.com.

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