Many individuals with Autism can have impairments or difficulties with functional communication. Sometimes this is due to medical conditions, such as tongue abnormalities or Apraxia. Or it can be due to severe deficits in the areas of motivation, typical language development, and social special methods of teaching children with speech skills. Speech delays can also be linked with excessive ear infections, which can lead to hearing loss or impair speech processing during times of critical brain development.
The majority of the children I have worked with were non- vocal when I first met them. This means they did not consistently communicate vocally. Maybe they had some babble, or would say a few word approximations, but they were unable to reliably communicate their wants and needs to other people. I intentionally used the word “non- verbal” in the title of this post, because communication is not just words. But if I say a child is “vocal”, I am specifically saying they can communicate with words or they can talk. Non- verbal individuals often communicate by pointing, leading, or the majority of the time: through their behavior. I have observed quite a few clients who without saying a word had an entire household catering to their every desire.
The goal when working with individuals who have communication difficulties should be broader than just expressive language. That doesn’t mean they can’t ever learn to Communicate. The goal should be teaching the child a functional, effective, system of communication. If I teach a 5 year old to label colors and body parts but she can’t tell me when she is hungry, that’s a good example of a child who can talk but isn’t using language to communicate.
A young child who will echo, sing wordless songs, or babble, often can be quite successful with intensive language intervention. The behavioral piece of communication is HUGE. It can’t be stated enough: Children who cannot communicate have some of the most persistent and challenging problem behaviors. Well, just imagine that you are placed in an environment where no one speaks your language. If you speak English, everyone else speaks French.
Now imagine that you are hungry and must convince these people to feed you. How long would you try pointing and gesturing, before you started pushing people and throwing things? If a child lacks motivation to communicate, and isn’t externally required to communicate, then from the child’s perspective its much easier to engage in behaviors. For a child with Autism to learn to communicate, reinforcement must be present. Why do I have to reinforce my child to talk? A characteristic of Autistic Disorder is qualitative impairments in communication.