Hopeful news for language development in children with autism

April is National Autism Awareness Month and the perfect time to share some good news for children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

Parents of children with ASD have commonly been told that if their child isn’t speaking by age 5, he or she likely never will. However, a new study in the journal Pediatrics counters this belief.

The study of more than 500 children suggests that even when children are not yet using phrase speech at age 6 or 7, there’s still a lot of hope that they can go on to gain meaningful language.

The study looked at children ages 8 to 17 who were diagnosed with autism and severe language delays at age 4. None of the children in the sample were using phrase speech at 4 and many were not using words at all.

Researchers gathered information about these children’s development and found that most of them actually went on to acquire communicative language. Nearly half (47 percent) became fluent speakers and more than two-thirds (70 percent) learned to speak in simple phrases.

Certain factors predicted whether severely language-delayed children with autism eventually developed speech. Most of the children who did so had comparatively stronger nonverbal cognitive skills — perception, memory, judgment and reasoning — and lower social impairment than those children who did not develop language.

Somewhat surprisingly, the intensity of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests did not affect whether or not language emerged, nor did demographics such as parent income and education level or child psychiatric characteristics.

These findings offer hope that language-delayed children with ASD may well go on to develop speech in elementary school or even as teenagers. The study also suggests that social skills and nonverbal cognitive skills are building blocks for language and that targeting these areas in early intervention may ultimately help promote language emergence.

Lark Huang-Storms, Ph.D.
Director, Autism Program
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital
OHSU Institute on Development & Disability