How to Find a Speech Therapist for Your Autistic Child

Every child with autism needs speech therapy

Boy works with speech therapist
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Traditionally, speech language therapists (SLPs) have focused on supporting people as they improve their ability to physically form words. That may mean overcoming issues like stuttering or lisping — or it may mean regaining speech skills after brain injury or stroke.

Basic speech may also be important for your child with autism. Many children on the spectrum are late speakers or non-verbal. Some struggle with apraxia of speech, a neurological issue that makes spoken language extremely challenging. If your child is having difficulty with forming words or using spoken language, a speech therapist can help him or her to build the communication skills needed to learn, interact, and build friendships. 

In addition to working with children on speech production, many speech therapists now work on speech pragmatics — the actual use of speech as a tool for communication and conversation. For many kids with autism, problems with speech pragmatics are at the heart of many social, communication and learning issues. 

Speech Therapists for Children With Autism

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) notes on its website that there are recommended best practices for autism therapy. But while those recommendations are described in general, no specific focus for SLPs is included.

Overall, the message is that therapists in general (and presumably SLPs in particular) should mold their therapy to needs of the individual child and should ensure that therapy focuses on the "core deficits" of autism (generally understood to be social and communication challenges). This type of advice is fairly vague, which may be why SLPs approach children with autism in so many different ways. While some therapists incorporate play, daily activities or social groups into their sessions, others offer a much more traditional teaching approach.

Fern Sussman, a program manager at More Than Words and TalkAbility at the Hanen Centre in Toronto, Canada, is an SLP who works with and writes about children with autism. She recommends you start with a practitioner who is certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). But in addition to that credential, here's her list of qualities to seek in an SLP who works with autistic children:

  • Your SLP should test for use of language (not just​ the ability to speak words or sounds)
  • Your SLP should find out whether your child gets jokes, gets intonation, makes eye contact
  • Your SLP shouldn't work on eye contact by simply giving the "mand" or command "look at me," but should engage your child to the point that she makes eye contact on her own
  • Your SLP should not be someone who specializes in articulation or stuttering issues. You want him always to use language naturally. You can do both at once — work on correct pronunciations AND help a child to think about "Why is this joke funny?"
  • Your SLP should understand your child's special strengths, and work through their strengths. A visual kid should never be doing entirely auditory work.
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Article Sources

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  • Prelock, Patricia. "Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Role of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists in Service Delivery." 1997-2008 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

  • Interview with Fern Sussman, SLP May 2008.