Language Development in Children with Autism

Language Development in Children with Autism
Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a high functioning adult with autism and author of several books writes, "I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk at age three. This caused me to throw many a tantrum. I could understand what people said to me, but I could not get my words out. It was like a big stutter, and starting words was difficult. My first few words were very difficult to produce and generally had only one syllable, such as ‘bah’ for ball. It was like a big stutter. I can remember logically thinking to myself that I would have to scream because I had no other way to communicate." (Grandin, 1995, 44).

Try to imagine how Temple Grandin must have felt as a child not being able to speak. For many people the closest you have come to feeling the frustration of not being able to communicate is when you are traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language. How did you ask for directions to your hotel or order food in a restaurant?

You may have felt frustrated, but at least you could use compensatory strategies like translation dictionaries, gestures or pointing to communicate. Strategies such as gestures and pointing are forms of augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) which is a critical component in teaching your child to become an independent communicator.

Beginning communicators with autism, constantly feel frustrated and confused due to their lack of communication skills. Often young children with autism are unable to speak; additionally, they do not understand how to use compensatory strategies such as gestures and pointing to help them communicate. This constant state of frustration over not being able to communicate results in problem behaviors such as: screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, biting, scratching, spitting, hitting and self-induced vomiting. These behaviors are often born out of frustration over not being able to express themselves and are often used to escape demands and avoid social interaction.

Neuro-typically developing children learn to speak by attending and listening to their parents use language in naturally occurring contexts. They begin to associate meaning with the combinations of sounds their parents are using and eventually begin to imitate the sounds they hear. Their parents in turn, reinforce the production of these sounds by assigning meaning to them.

For example, a baby is babbling and produces the sounds "tu-tee." The proud parent responds by clapping, cheering and giving the baby a cookie and says, "You want a cookie, here’s a cookie! Oh, he said cookie!" A big production is made over the baby’s "first word." Even though the baby may have accidentally produced these series of sounds, the parent assigns meaning to the baby’s sounds, reinforces the behavior by giving a cookie and even provides additional modeling of the word. It is likely that the baby will learn to repeat these syllables and understand the meaning of his "first word." The process of acquiring language sounds easy enough, so why is this so difficult for children with autism?

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of speech and language acquisition for children with autism. Unlike their neuro-typical peers, children with autism have: 1. difficulty paying attention to others’ speech; 2. may not assign meaning to speech; and 3. do not attempt to imitate speech. Children with autism must be taught the skills they need to acquire speech and language. They often need to: 1. learn to attend to a speaker; 2. work on imitation and turn taking skills; and 3. be provided with visual strategies or cues to help improve their understanding of the spoken word.

"Young children with autism neither watch people intently nor consistently turn their heads toward sound. It cannot be assumed that all the complexities of the language will be learned automatically, without instruction, because they have difficulty deriving meaning from their experiences automatically or independently. It is not that these children do not learn any language, but the learning is incomplete and specific to their frame of reference, which is different from others'." (Janzen, 1996, 37).


  1. Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in Pictures. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

  2. Janzen, J. (1996). Understanding the Nature of Autism.
    San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders.

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