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Speech Therapy for Autism: The Basics

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Updated June 10, 2009

What Exactly IS a Speech Therapist?

Speech therapy involves the treatment of speech and communication disorders - which means it's a very wide-ranging field. A certified speech pathologist (sometimes called a therapist) must hold a master's degree. That person may work in a private setting, a clinic, a school or an institution, and may well 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.

Why Would a Person With Autism Need to See a Speech Therapist?

Almost anyone diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder will be recommended for speech therapy. This may seem odd, as many autistic people are either non-verbal (at the lower end of the spectrum) or extremely verbal (at the upper end of the spectrum). But even very verbal people with Asperger Syndrome are likely to misuse and misunderstand language on a regular basis. And even non-verbal people can certainly develop communication skills - and may even develop spoken language skills over time.

What Does a Speech Therapist Do for People with Autism?

Speech therapy involves much more than than simply teaching a child to correctly pronounce words. In fact, a speech therapist working with an autistic child or adult may work on a wide range of skills including:
  • Non-verbal communication. This may include teaching gestural communication, or training with PECS (picture exchange cards), electronic talking devices, and other non-verbal communication tools.
  • 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.
  • 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.

How Can I Find a Qualified Speech Therapist?

Because speech-language therapy is so well-established, it is very 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.

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

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