Speech Devices Can Help Build Language in Schoolchildren with Autism

Minimally verbal schoolchildren with autism gained spoken language faster when play-based therapy included speech-generating devices

May 1, 2013

Despite intensive early therapy, around a third of children with autism speak few words when they enter school. Once experts believed that if children with autism didn’t acquire language by age 5 or 6, they never would. Now we know that many can do so. Encouraged, researchers, parents and other advocates are keenly interested in finding better ways to speed and boost these delayed gains in spoken language.

At this year’s International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), educational psychologist Connie Kasari, Ph.D., described the promising results of a study that incorporated speech-generating devices into a language and play-based autism therapy.

Dr. Kasari’s research team included investigators at University of California, Los Angeles; Vanderbilt University, Nashville; and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore. It was supported by a research grant from Autism Speaks

Sixty children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) participated in the study. They ranged in age from 5 to 8 years and used fewer than 20 words at the start of therapy. The researchers measured their word use before, midway-through and after the six-month study.

All the children participated in a play-based intervention that encouraged engagement with the therapist and the use of spoken language. To start, they received two, hour-long sessions per week.

To measure the additional benefit of a speech-generating device, the researchers used it with half the children from the very start of therapy. (Speech-generating devices come in many forms, including iPads with special apps.)

At the 3 month mark, the researchers measured the children’s progress. Those who were gaining language skills continued on course. The researchers added the communication device to the therapy of children who were responding slowly without it. Those who were progressing slowly even with the device received an extra hour of therapy per week.

All participants gained words; but progress faster with device

At the end of the six months, all the children in the study had made gains in language and communication. They used words more often and engaged in more communication with a social partner. On average, they took four or more conversational turns with a partner.

However, the children who began the treatment with the speech device made earlier and more rapid progress.

“These findings suggest that children who are minimally verbal can make significant progress in spoken social communication after age five,” says Dr. Kasari. “Clearly they are benefitting from the addition of a speech-generating device into therapy sessions right from the start

Insights for parents and therapists

“Many children with autism use augmentative communication devices,” adds Lauren Elder, Ph.D., Autism Speaks assistant director of dissemination science. “This study shows that these devices can help children with autism develop spoken language, which is often the most pressing concern for parents.” The study also adds to recent research suggesting that many nonverbal children with autism can and do develop spoken language, Dr. Elder adds. “It also gives therapists an evidence-based treatment technique they can use to help these children.”