Speech therapy may not be the first thing people think of when they hear about autism, but it is an extremely beneficial treatment for autistic children. Other than the obvious benefits of improved communication, speech therapy can help autistic children better interact with others, build relationships, and integrate into society.
There are a number of communication challenges that an autistic person can face. Given that autism is such a broad spectrum, different people will face different issues to varying degrees. These can include not talking, grunting, moaning, not making eye-contact, or using fabricated words. Understanding how conversations typically work, what sort of comments are appropriate, or what words and phrases mean in different contexts. Speech therapy can be used in a number of different ways to address these issues.
As autism is such a personal condition, each case is highy unique and there is no blanket treatment that can be applied across the board. But there are commonly used techniques, and the therapy will most likely be be a mix of several of these depending on the challenges faced. These include typing, singing songs, using flashcards with pictures and words, and learning sentences with a particular inflection i.e. putting the stress on the right parts of the sentence.
These techniques can be used to help autistic people learn to communicate in both verbal and non-verbal ways. First and foremost is of course opening up the lines of communication for those who have little to no verbal communication at all. Improved pronunciation and enunciation are other major benefits, as is correct inflection.
A major goal in most cases will be to improve the child's understanding of social cues. Problems understanding social cues can manifest in many ways. These can be somewhat minor issues, such as knowing when to say "Good morning" versus "Good afternoon". More difficult issues include knowing what topics of conversation are appropriate, identifying when someone is uncomfortable or trying to be friendly, and knowing how to act with a stranger versus a close member of family.
Understanding of idioms and context can be greatly improved with speech therapy. This is a major factor in allowing autistic people to better integrate into society. Idioms are a huge part of everyday speech, but on the surface, many of them don't appear to have any logic behind them. Phrases like "donkeys' years" can be immensely difficult for people with autism to grasp. Speech therapy can help patients learn the correct meaning and context in which these phrases should be used.
Speech is an essential part of building relationships and integrating into society. It allows us to make friends, form ideas, find hobbies, and much more. Therefore, the benefits of speech therapy to autistic patients extend far beyond the speech itself, and enable many patients to have a much higher quality of life.
As with any medical diagnosis, earlier detection and treatment will lead to better results from speech therapy. Children typically say their first words between 18 and 24 months, and start forming very basic sentences in their second year. This means autism is usually diagnosed by age 3, so starting speech therapy early on can have lifelong benefits for patients. However, as there are such varying degrees of autism, some patients may not be diagnosed for years. However, while therapy is more effective the earlier it is started, it can still be beneficial right into adulthood, so it is never too late to consider it as an option.