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Autism and apraxia: the importance of screening for both

Researchers find otherwise rare speech disorder affects nearly 65 percent of children with autism; call for screening and treatment
June 30, 2015

A new study finds that the relatively rare speech disorder apraxia affects nearly 65 percent of children with autism. The finding is important because apraxia warrants a specific type of therapy not otherwise part of an autism intervention program.

"Children with apraxia have difficulty coordinating the use of their tongue, lips, mouth and jaw to accurately produce speech sounds, so that each time they say the same word, it comes out differently, and even their parents have difficulty understanding them," explains developmental behavioral pediatrician Cheryl Tierney, of the Pennsylvania College of Medicine.

Dr. Tierney co-authored the new report, in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. In it, she and her colleagues emphasize the importance of keeping both conditions in mind when evaluating a child for either one.

The researchers assessed 30 children, ages 15 months to 5 years, seen at their developmental communication clinic. Their follow-up testing showed that 64 percent of the children initially diagnosed with autism also had apraxia, and 37 percent of the children initially diagnosed with apraxia also had autism. By contrast, apraxia occurs in just 1 or 2 out of 1,000 children in the general population. Autism affects 1 in 68.

Developmental experts have long noted autism and apraxia frequently coincide. The new study, though small, underscores just how commonly this overlap may occur.

Both conditions can be improved with early intervention, though each warrants a different intervention. In particular, the researchers emphasize that nonverbal children diagnosed with either autism or apraxia should continue to be screened for the other condition until they start talking.

"Children with autism frequently present with communication challenges including delayed speech and language development," notes speech-language pathologist Donna Murray, senior director of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN). "Speech-language pathologists are trained to identify the signs and symptoms of apraxia and will be able to assist families of children with autism in understanding the nature of their child’s communication delays and develop an intervention plan to treat apraxia if needed."

Learn more about apraxia from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association here.

The 14 centers in the Autism Speaks ATN can provide such services and/or help families find appropriate specialists in surrounding communities.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
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