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Guide to non-verbal Autism: Why speech is complex?

Speech is complex and it comprises of many factors to make it possible to happen.

What is speech?

Speech involves the act of speaking, and is a tool that we use to communicate and express our thoughts, emotions and ideas to others. Whereas the term communication, serves to define as a broader category, comprising of both verbal and non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. Although the two terms ‘speech’ and ‘communication’ are at times used interchangeably, they do not entirely have the same meaning. To put it simply, speech is a form of communication.

Importance of speech

Children with autism may find it difficult to exchange ideas and communicate with their peers or family. Speech can assist in improving overall communication. By working on and developing their speech, this makes it possible for them to improve their ability to express their wants and needs, and ultimately, form relationships to function in their daily life.

Factors important to speech

Some factors important to the development of speech include:

  • Attention

Attention is shown in ways such as being able to focus on instructions given and to stay on task for a certain period. Through attending to their environment, the child is able to stay on task long enough to learn and pick up skills that will assist them in increasing and developing their speech. For example, when the child is able to focus and attend to the therapist during the session, it provides more opportunities for him to learn and improve his skills.

  • Social awareness

Before imitation of sounds is to occur, the child must first be aware of the happenings in their environment (what people around them are doing, the different sounds in the environment, etc.). This is known as social awareness. For example, the child turns to look at the bell when you ring it. He is aware of the sound and attends to it by turning to look at the source.

Additionally, social awareness involves understanding how to react to different social scenarios and to adapt and modify your interactions accordingly. Individuals on the spectrum may require more help in this aspect as they may not know how to express themselves or may be simply overwhelmed by new experiences. This can be achieved through the development of theory of mind which is being aware that others can have beliefs, feelings and thoughts that are different from one’s own.

Just as social awareness can help build up a child’s speech, speech can also assist in developing one’s social awareness. When the child is presented with more opportunities to practice his speech, he is actually provided chances to also practice and develop social awareness. For example, understanding the meaning behind a word and when he should use the word will assist the child in using his speech in appropriate situations.

  • Imitation

Imitation is a big part of childhood and serves as a stepping stone to more generative speech. We learn by watching others and copying their actions.

Imitation skills require the above mentioned skills - the ability to attend and being socially aware, as well as being able to process information and execute the same action. A class of brain cells known as mirror neurons is responsible for imitation. These cells are active when performing an action and when seeing someone else perform the same action.

Imitation lays the foundation for later social or speech abilities. A huge component of language and speech is learned through imitation. From making sounds to forming words and phrases, then sentences. When children are able to imitate, parents are able to teach them the meaning behind the words they say and when they should use the word. For example, when a child imitates the word “ball”, parents can point to a ball and say the word again. This helps them to better understand the link between the word they imitated and the real object.

Through coordinating your actions with others in the social environment, it allows children to engage in social exchanges with others. Thus, imitation also plays a social role in the development of speech.

  • Motivation

Motivation is the drive behind an action taken. Social acceptance is not necessarily a primary motivator for individuals on the spectrum, as such, they pay less heed to social information and engagement. Therefore, motivation to imitate and make sounds is especially crucial and essential to them for the development of speech. Motivation to speak can be increased by rewarding your child when he or she pays attention to and imitates a sound or a word. This reinforces them to want to imitate and to continue trying to speak.

Speech is complex and it comprises of many factors. By working on these factors with practice, it can help enhance the motivation and frequency of participation in social situations as well as the development of speech for individuals on the spectrum.

Written by Winnie.

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