Thanks to parents and advocates, awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder is better than it has ever been, but as April is Autism Awareness Month, this is a great time to get a refresher on what Autism is and what areas of speech and language development we should be monitoring as a diagnosis is considered.
Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and restricted and repetitive behavior. The term autism covers a spectrum of diagnoses varying from the very severe to the very mild. A very mild presentation of Autism is sometimes given the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.
It has become apparent that early diagnosis and early intervention are key when it comes to a good prognosis for a child with Autism. Parents often notice a lack of development in the first two-three years of life, so keeping a close eye on a child’s developmental milestones is a good way to monitor a child.
We know that autism is a disorder that first and foremost affects a child’s social interactions. It affects their language development as well, but there are certain pre-verbal skills that a child needs to develop first before we can expect them to start using language. Some of those skills include:
- Shared attention (Birth to 4 months): this is when a child shares interest or enjoyment with you by sharing eye gaze with you while playing with you and a toy
- Engagement (5-8 months): this is basically lengthened periods of shared attention. The best way to define engagement is when a child is “right there with you” as you play.
- Two-way communication (8-14 months): this is a back and forth exchange using verbal or non-verbal means of communication. This would include gestures when a child will reach for your hand and pull you to an object, or a child using a gesture to indicate that they want you to do something again.
A child usually says their first words in the two-way communication level. But keep in mind that if a child has Autism, language development may be delayed. Many parents want their children to communicate through words so badly that they try so hard to get their child to say words, and forget about all the pre-verbal skills that they need first. It’s key to make sure that a child’s shared attention and engagement skills develop in order to make sure that when spoken language develops, it is functional and appropriate as opposed to robotic.
As always, if you have concern regarding your child’s development, talk to your pediatrician. Ask if they have any checklists for flagging Autism or any other speech and language disorders. Find out if your child is on track for speech, language and social communication by asking to see development handouts. Or contact the Beaumont Children’s Speech Department at 248-655-5975.
— Christy Rice, M.A. CCC-SLP