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How can speech therapy help a child with autism?

In most cases, if your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it will be recommended that you take them for speech therapy. This is because many autistic kids are challenged with compromised or limited speech; they need more help than others on forming sentences, or even single words.

“When we were first advised to sign up for speech therapy, we were a little put off,” says Wendy, 44-year-old mom to Caleb, 12. “He’s pretty high functioning, from what we can see, in comparison to I guess what we originally assumed of an autistic child… we couldn’t understand, at three years old, why we’d be signing him up for speech therapy so soon.

“It was like, ‘Can we not wait and see how he develops? Is there enough the kid is going to have to learn and practice? He’s talking. Why would we need speech therapy?’ We thought speech therapy was just for kids who were completely non-verbal.”

Wendy’s assumption isn’t atypical – a lot of parents may not understand at first why their verbal, autistic child would need assistance in therapy too.

But what’s common in autistic kids is that even those who may be able to successfully form words and put together sentences may end up misunderstanding language regularly, even misusing certain words and phrases. Speech therapy isn’t just about “fixing” stutters or lisps or improper pronunciation, it’s also designed to help autistic kids understand and use spoken language in a social context.

Speech therapy is available privately in a clinic, but may and can also be offered in schools or as part of a larger team in an institution where your child may visit. It’s not always formal, either – it can be done in a playful way, so your child actually has fun attending the session. The goal is to help your autistic child engage and communicate verbally.

Sometimes, sessions are held one on one, and sometimes, they’re done in groups. They may focus on conversation skills, like how to complete back-and-forth exchanges with others, or concept skills, like what words like “few” or “several” may mean. They could focus on grammar as a supplementary service to what’s being taught in school. They may focus on speech pragmatics (understanding and using idioms), body language, non-verbal communication, and prosody (the melody of a voice as it may rise and fall during a conversation).

Speech language therapy may be covered by medical insurance, or it may have to be paid for entirely out of pocket, but it is a wonderful – and sometimes necessary – component of your autistic child’s growth and development.

Make sure that when you choose a speech therapist, they’re a match to your family but especially to your child. You can certainly ask to meet and interview the therapist first, and you can observe them throughout your relationship with them to ensure your child’s needs are being met and that you have clearly defined, shared goals.

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