Is Delayed Speech a Sign of Autism?

Early intervention with online speech therapy can be key to helping any child with a speech or language delay, regardless of the child’s diagnosis. Clinical research has consistently indicated that early intervention is essential to helping a child catch up to peers and become capable of better self-expression.

But that speech or language delay you detect in your child may suggest that autism is a concern as well. While speech delays are very common among children with autism, they are common in children without autism as well.

Typical Communication Milestones

From the moment of birth, a baby begins to communicate. Within the first three months, children are expected to look at their caregivers, respond to their voices, smile when smiled at, and react to sounds. Their cooing and crying are becoming signals of needs either met or unmet.

Within 6-9 months, it is typical for an infant to recognize familiar people, enjoy playing “peek-a-boo,” and begin to imitate familiar actions and sounds.

Within 12-18 months, parents begin to hear the first words, such as “dada,” “cookie” or “ball.” At this age, children also begin saying “hi” and “bye-bye,” as well as practically every child’s “no!”

By the time a child is 2, vocabulary is expanding quickly, and the child can be expected to be using between 250-300 words. At this age, children are also combining two words to make a request, comment, and label things they see.

By 3 years old, children begin answering questions and carrying out 2-step unrelated requests, such as “first clean up your toys, and then go get your shoes,” although they may need some encouragement to complete these tasks.

Unfortunately, for some children, reaching these milestones is not so simple.

Speech and Language Delays are Different

Before discussing the unique characteristics of autism, it’s important to understand the difference between speech and language delays. While they are often used interchangeably, they differ in key ways.

Speech is how children use articulation of sounds to then express their needs, wants, and desires. Those children whose speech is delayed tend to follow typical developmental patterns, albeit at a slower rate than their peers.

On the other hand, a language delay doesn’t refer to the physical act of “how” children produce sounds, rather, “what” they’re saying. In other words, while children can correctly pronounce sounds in words, they can’t use these words to form meaningful phrases or sentences. This is what is called an expressive language delay.

Besides expressive language delays, there is something called receptive language delay. This is when a child’s ability to understand what others are saying is compromised. These children struggle to process information, understand the meaning of new vocabulary words, and comprehend verbal communication or written text.

How Autism is Different

Although children with communication delays can follow the same progression as their peers, albeit at a slower pace, these children are still highly motivated by social responses. Just like their peers, they want to be held, touched and hugged by their parents. They respond positively to attention, copy the actions of those around them, and can become bored, upset, or lonely when left by themselves.

Simply put, even if a child is experiencing a speech or language delay, he/she is still a dynamic social creature. This is precisely the point of contrast with autism. Autism, while presenting some of the same symptoms as speech-language delays, is rooted in a completely different source: social dysfunction.

1. Lack of Social Communication and Social Relationships

One of the hallmarks of autism is the lack of social communication or the inability to form meaningful social relationships. These children often prefer to be left alone to pursue their interests. They generally have a greater interest in “things” than “people,” and rarely engage in pretend play.

They may also find it more difficult to use and understand non-verbal communication, such as smiling, gesturing, or facial expressions. Additionally, their interest in social communication is a means to get what they want, as opposed to an end in itself.

2. Inappropriate, Unexpressive, or Stilted Communication

Children with autism often have difficulty beginning or maintaining a conversation. The voice of many of these children is robotic, lacking inflection, and they will often respond to a question by repeating it instead of answering it. Along these lines, they may repeat words or phrases they recently heard (called echolalia), without an intelligible context.

Often, children with autism will compulsively label objects rather than commenting or requesting, and appear to look through people instead of at them, seeming to lack awareness of others. They often speak only in single words, or repeat certain phrases over and over, appearing unable to combine words into meaningful sentences.

3. Not Frustrated by Being Misunderstood

These children don’t appear to be frustrated when they aren’t understood. Instead, they will easily give up and go back to whatever they were doing, unless the interaction was intended to procure a highly desired object. Many children with autism also self-stimulate by staring at lights or mouthing objects and prefer repetitive actions.

Your Hope is Yours Forever!

If your child is indeed diagnosed with autism, you may feel that the doors have been shut on your child. Because, along with that diagnosis, you probably received a long list of dire predictions about the child you love, such as:

  • Your child will either never talk, or do so with great difficulty

  • Your child won’t have any friends or even hold your hand

  • Your child will never have a job or get married

  • Perhaps your child will never even say they love you

And no one could fault you for being filled with grief, feeling frightened, and even being angry.

But you aren’t obligated to accept the limits you have been told to place upon your child.

You need to know that your child has the capacity to learn, communicate, experience real joy and happiness, and develop warm, loving, and satisfying relationships. Children on the autism spectrum are capable of great change.

Irrespective of what you have been told, there is hope for your child. Because you are the parent, you have a love, a steadfast and lifelong commitment, and daily experience with your child that is unmatched.

You have the hope for your child, see the potential, and desire for your child more than anyone can imagine. And while there are no guarantees what any given child will accomplish, there is also no guarantee of what your child will not achieve.

Never ever give up!