Autism and speech therapy

Learn how speech-language pathologists can help

By speech-language pathologists Gail Richard and Donna Murray
speech-language pathologists Gail Richard and Donna Murray

May is Better Hearing & Speech Month, and speech-language pathologists Gail Richard and Donna Murray would like to take this opportunity to highlight the important services that a speech-language pathologist can provide for someone who has autism.

What is a speech-language pathologist?

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) have masters or doctoral training in speech-language pathology. They’ve completed a clinical fellowship and participated in continuing education. They are licensed by the state where they practice or hold teacher certification. Most also hold a certificate of clinical competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

You may have heard speech-language pathologists referred to as “speech therapists.” We prefer the term speech-language pathologist because it better describes our training and the broad range of services we can provide. Many SLPs specialize in particular areas. So it’s important to find one with training and experience helping children and/or adults with autism.

The speech-language pathologist’s most-familiar role involves helping someone produce speech – making sounds, speaking words, improving articulation (intelligibility) and so on. But speech-language pathologists do so much more. They also help with the language skill of putting words together to communicate ideas – either verbally or in reading and writing.

Most important for many people with autism, speech-language pathologists help with social communication skills.

In addition, a speech-language pathologist can help nonverbal children and adults find and use the most appropriate means of alternative communication. For one person, this may involve learning how to use gestures. Another person might do best with a communication system that includes using pictures or visual supports. Still other children and adults do particularly well using electronic communication devices. The speech-language pathologist understands how to match each of these approaches to the individual’s skills and challenges.

In addition to helping people improve the use of language, speech-language pathologists can help improve the understanding of language. For instance, someone who has autism may need help understanding how we use language to have a conversation. He or she may have problems understanding such complexities as understanding that some words have multiple meanings. For example, “I’m going to store those books” versus “I am going to the store.” Another common challenge for many with autism – understanding that some expressions are meant humorously, sarcastically or figuratively. “It’s raining cats and dogs” is a classic example.

Improving social communication

A major focus of our work is to help improve social communication and social interaction – a challenging area for many people on the autism spectrum. This can include helping someone learn how to adapt his or her language and nonverbal cues to match different social settings, contexts and communication partners. Along these lines, many people with autism need help recognizing other people’s verbal and nonverbal cues (shrugs, facial expressions, etc.).

By improving communication and reducing related frustrations, speech-language services often ease challenging behaviors and improve academic and workplace success.

Speech-language pathologists provide services and supports in education, community and vocational settings. They collaborate with teachers and other education and healthcare professionals. Furthermore, many can help with the feeding and swallowing difficulties that sometimes accompany autism.

Early identification of autism

Speech and language delays tend to be among parents’ earliest developmental concerns. As a result, speech-language pathologist are often among the first clinicians to work with a child who has undiagnosed autism and can be a key part of the multi-disciplinary team that makes the diagnosis.

While delivering services, speech-language pathologists continually monitor children’s development. For example, they will look for skills such as interactive play, turn-taking and joint attention (sharing a common focus with another person). In this way, they are in an ideal position to spot early warning signs of autism and collaborate in a full evaluation if warranted. The result can be earlier diagnosis and intervention that supports brain development and improves outcomes.

As a reminder to all parents, federal law mandates free evaluation for developmental delays and delivery of appropriate early intervention services for children – including speech-language pathology services.

Click here to find contact information for your state’s early intervention program.

To learn more about speech-language pathologists – and find certified professionals near you – please visit the website of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Also see these helpful videos by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Kids and autism: How speech-language pathologists help


Tips for kids: How you can be FABB when communicating with friends with autism