Is Late Speech a Sign of Autism?

Speech delays are very common among children with autism. But they are also common in children without autism.

There are, however, very real differences between autistic speech delays and other types of delays. In many cases, these differences are noticeable even to non-experts.

Significant speech delays are always a cause for some concern, but they are by no means always a sign of autism. This article will cover the reasons for speech delays and help you learn to recognize when they're related to autism.

5 Speech-Related Signs of Autism

Verywell / Hugo Lin

How Autistic Speech Delays Differ

As most babies develop, they quickly learn that communication is the key to getting what they want. Long before they learn to use spoken language, little ones make eye contact, pull on sleeves, babble, point, and otherwise work hard to get their point across to adults and older children.

Over time, the majority of children learn to use spoken language because they get positive results from doing so. In addition, most children:

  • Are highly motivated by social responses such as smiles and hugs
  • Are naturally inclined to imitate the actions of people around them
  • Are likely to spend much more time observing people than observing things
  • Tend to be social beings who become quickly bored or lonely when left alone

Children with autism, however, have social communication challenges that stand in the way of meaningful social connection. While children with high-functioning autism may be much more socially inclined than those with more severe autism, the same issues hold true across the spectrum.

For example, a child with autism:

  • May be more motivated by his or her own interests than by social responses
  • May rarely or never imitate others' actions
  • Be more interested in things than in people
  • Be content when left alone to pursue their own interests

All of these characteristics lead to different behaviors, desires, and outcomes.

Recap

Children with autism may have a harder time using or understanding non-verbal communication (such as pointing, pulling, and smiling). They may also have less interest in social communication for its own sake.

Symptoms of Autistic Speech Delay

The difference between autistic speech delays and other delays is fairly easy to spot. If you recognize your child in Bobby (listed below), it may be a good idea to consider having your child evaluated for autism.

Johnny isn't talking at all at age 2. But while he isn't saying words yet, he's using babbling sounds and body language to communicate with the people around him. He's pointing, pulling people toward things he wants, and engaging with other people. He actively enjoys playing with his parents and siblings. And he's frustrated when left alone to take a nap.

Bobby is the same age as Johnny. Bobby does have a few words, but he doesn't use them to communicate. Instead, he repeats them over and over to himself. Bobby has not yet figured out how to use gestures, sounds, or words to ask for something he wants. His parents find it almost impossible to hold his attention for more than a few seconds.

Johnny may have a speech delay that requires some form of early intervention. Possibilities include (but are not limited to):

  • Hearing loss
  • Apraxia of speech, a problem with control of muscles used in speech
  • Cognitive (thinking) challenges

Although Bobby is able to use a few words, he may be showing early signs of autism.

Speech-Related Signs of Autism

In addition to late speech, there are a number of other communication-related issues that could be signs of autism. In general, children with autism are more likely to:

  • Fail or be slow to respond to their name or other verbal attempts to gain their attention
  • Fail or be slow to develop gestures, such as pointing and showing things to others
  • Coo and babble in the first year of life, but then stop doing so
  • Develop language at a delayed pace
  • Learn to communicate using pictures or their own sign language
  • Speak only in single words or repeat certain phrases over and over, seeming unable to combine words into meaningful sentences
  • Repeat words or phrases that they hear, a condition called echolalia
  • Use words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with the child's way of communicating

Summary

Children with autism often have speech delays, but speech delays alone do not mean your child has autism. Autistic speech delays usually occur along with other communication issues, such as not using gestures, not responding to their name, and not showing interest in connecting with people. Other possible causes of speech delays include hearing loss and developmental delays.

A Word From Verywell

If you're worried that your child may have autism, it's a good idea to have them evaluated. If the pediatrician determines that your child's significant speech delay is connected to autism, you'll be able to start therapy early and give your child the best chance of gaining effective communication skills.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • At what age do children with autism start speaking?

    It can vary widely among children with autism: Some begin using words earlier than typical children and others are nonverbal into adulthood. Based on research, though, children with autism usually begin producing words at 36 months, while the average child begins at around 12 to 18 months.

  • How can an autistic child who can’t talk learn to communicate?

    About 25% of children with autism will not develop the ability to speak. These children may be able to learn to communicate via sign language, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), or augmentative communication.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Spectrum. Social communication in autism, explained. Published April 16, 2020.

  3. Mody M, Belliveau JW. Speech and language impairments in autism: insights from behavior and neuroimagingN Am J Med Sci (Boston). 2013;5(3):157‐161. doi:10.7156/v5i3p157

  4. Mayo J, Chlebowski C, Fein DA, Eigsti I-M. Age of first words predicts cognitive ability and adaptive skills in children with ASD. J Autism Dev Disord. 2013;43(2):253-264. doi:10.1007%2Fs10803-012-1558-0

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