How Speech Therapy Benefits Children With Autism

Almost anyone diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder will be recommended for speech therapy. In some cases, this makes perfect sense because many autistic children have limited or compromised speech, and clearly need help in forming words and sentences. But even very verbal people with high functioning autism are likely to receive speech therapy. That's because, while they can form words and sentences, they are likely to misuse and misunderstand language on a regular basis.

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What Is Speech Therapy?

Speech therapy involves the treatment of speech and communication disorders, which means it's a very wide-ranging field. Speech therapy can help children with stutters or lisps to pronounce words correctly, but it can also help children with developmental disorders to understand and use spoken language in a social context.

A certified speech-language pathologist (sometimes called a therapist) is a communication expert that must hold a master's degree. That person may work in a private setting, a clinic, a school, or an institution, and may work as part of an educational team. They use a wide range of tools and interventions, ranging from toys and play-like therapy to formal tests and speech curricula.

What a Speech Therapist Does for People With Autism

Speech therapists can play a major role in helping an autistic child learn to communicate and engage with other people. Depending on the setting (school, home, office), your child's therapist may work 1:1 or in groups. And depending on your child's functional level, the therapist may focus on one or all these skills:

  • Non-verbal communication. This may include teaching gestural communication or training with PECS (picture exchange communication system), electronic talking devices, and other non-verbal communication tools.
  • Body language. How can you tell if another person is joking or serious? When is it okay to join a conversation and when is the conversation private? Speech therapists can teach children how to recognize subtly physical signals.
  • Asking and answering questions. Children with autism may not develop the ability to ask and answer questions without the help of a therapist. The therapist can teach your child how to recognize a question and appropriate answers to provide. They can also help your child formulate, ask, and understand the answers to their own questions.
  • Speech pragmatics. It's all well and good to know how to say, "good morning." But it's just as important to know when, how, and to whom you should say it to. Speech pragmatics training can also help your child understand the meaning of idioms (sometimes hard for people with autism), and to use idioms themselves.
  • Prosody. The term "prosody" relates to the melodic sound of a voice as it goes up and down in conversation. Many people with autism have flat prosody, which causes other people to believe they have no emotions. Speech therapists can help children with autism to build their vocal skills.
  • Grammar. Some children with autism have a tough time using correct grammar even when it's modeled at home or at school. They may refer to themselves in the third person ("Johnny wants juice") or use incorrect tenses, etc. Speech therapists often work with autistic children to help them correct grammar mistakes.
  • Conversation skills. Knowing how to make statements is not the same thing as carrying on conversations. Speech therapists may work on back-and-forth exchange, sometimes known as "joint attention."
  • Concept skills. A person's ability to state abstract concepts doesn't always reflect their ability to understand them. Autistic people often have a tough time with ideas like "few," "justice," and "liberty." Speech therapists may work on building concept skills.
  • Social skills. Along with play therapists, occupational therapists, and people in specific areas of expertise such as recreational therapy, drama therapy, and art therapy, speech therapists often help people with autism to build social communication skills. Such skills include the ability to ask and answer questions, stand at an appropriate distance from a conversational partner, assess the "mood" of a room (or a person), and more.

It's important to note that while speech therapy is a "must" for autistic children, it can also be extremely beneficial for adults on the autism spectrum. While children often focus on the basics of communication, adults may focus on more subtle forms of communication for different types of social interactions.

How to Find a Qualified Speech Therapist

Because speech-language therapy is so well-established, it is highly likely that your medical insurance will cover all or part of the cost. It's also quite likely that your child's school or early intervention provider will provide the service for free. If you choose to go the private route, you may need to pay the therapist in advance and then request reimbursement from your insurance company.

It's always important to remember, however, that any therapist must be a good personal match for your child's needs. For that reason, you will want to meet, interview, and observe the therapist as they work with your child. You may also wish to ask the therapist for references from parents with children whose needs are similar to your child's. Some therapists are terrific with verbal children but less effective with non-verbal children, and vice versa.

For more information about finding a qualified speech-language therapist, contact the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

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. Parsons L, Cordier R, Munro N, Joosten A, Speyer R. A systematic review of pragmatic language interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder. PLoS One. 2017 Apr 20;12(4):e0172242. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172242

  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Who are speech-language pathologists, and what do they do?

  4. Spain D, Zıvralı Yarar E, Happé F. Social anxiety in adults with autism: a qualitative study. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2020 Dec;15(1):1803669. doi: 10.1080/17482631.2020.1803669

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.