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How does visual performance affect speech development in autism?

Visual performance is important in helping children with their executive functioning which influences language development.

Is visual performance really THAT important?

The short answer to this is a big definite…. YES!

In one of our recent articles, we talked about the importance of visual performance (click to read more) and how we can improve it. For this article, we will be explaining the link between a child’s visual performance and their speech development. As far-fetched as it may sound, a child’s visuo-spatial ability and their speech development are interlinked.

Importance of executive functions

Executive function can be considered the “CEO of the brain” because these skills allow an individual to plan, set goals, and get things done.

Executive functions are responsible for a set of mental skills such as:

  • Paying attention

  • Organising, planning and prioritising

  • Starting task and staying focused until completion

  • Understanding differing perspectives

  • Regulating emotions

Many children with ASD often face executive functioning issues that are key to learning. As a result, they often struggle with working memory, flexible thinking and self-control which impacts them in their school and everyday life.

Research has shown that executive functions in particular influence language performance (Dawson & Guare, 2004). It is also noted that the working memory is a significant contributor to language processing, reading comprehension and language formation (Archibald & Gathercole, 2006).

How visual performance help speech?

At Healis Autism Centre, we advocate a strong foundation for building visual performance because it provides great opportunities to form these connections which will help in speech. To strengthen the executive functioning, children need to experience growth-promoting activities such as puzzles, block imitation and matching.

For example, when a child attempts a puzzle activity, he/she have to focus, scan, track and orientate the pieces until it fits accordingly. To successfully complete the task, it requires the child to pay attention and be observant enough to spot that some pieces do not go together and attempt different ones. Additionally, the process of trial-and-error when they manipulate the pieces helps to build a child’s planning skills. They have to observe and decide which pieces they would choose based on the contextual clues of the puzzles. These help to work on different aspects of executive functioning such as attention, working memory, impulse control and cognitive flexibility which would help in the speed of processing words.

Another activity would be the block imitation exercise where children have to look at a block structure built by an adult and use their own blocks to construct and replicate the given structure. This simple task encapsulates a variety of skills that are crucial for a child’s speech development. Before the child is able to do that, they need to observe, scan and plan with the end in mind. They have to go through a thought process that a solid block structure has to be built upwards, left to right or even requires a sturdy big base to support its weight. By doing this, it helps to exercise the executive functioning of needing to pay attention, plan, remember and organise their actions to do what they are asked to. All these cognitive abilities will help a child to better plan what they would like to say before they speak. This will eventually help them to also form proper sentence structure that could be easily understood by others.

Ultimately, all these activities seek to help improve attention span which is the basis of learning. When you start paying attention, you will be able to notice how to scan, copy, imitate and follow through it. Being agile in these skills can help children to improve performance in 3 areas that are pivotal to executive functioning; working memory, cognitive flexibility and impulse control:

  • Working memory helps with retaining the different steps needed to complete a task.

  • Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to change mental gear quickly.

  • Impulse control is what stops a child from doing what they know they should not.

An improvement in these areas will help knock down barriers for learning.

It is not a dead end.

Having trouble with executive functions creates challenges in learning. However, these difficulties can be overcome with a little guidance to help them focus better. As we have discussed above, visual performance is important in helping children with their executive functioning which influences language development. When a proper foundation is set in stone, you will be surprised to see how much more active and verbal your child would be!

Written by: Jermaine Tan


  • Archibald, L., & Gathercole , S. (2006). Short-term and working memory in specific language impairment. National Center for Biotchnology Information , 675-693.

  • Ben-Aharon, A. (15 November, 2018). How you can improve executive functioning skills in kids with ADHD. Retrieved from A Great Speech Inc. web site :

  • Gooch, D., Thompson, P., Nash, H. M., Snowling , M. J., & Hulme , C. (2016). The development of executive function and language skills in the early school years. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 52(2), 180-187. Retrieved from A National Centre for Biotechnology Information web site.

  • Guare, R., & Peg, D. (2004). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention. New York: Guilford Press.

  • Hungerford, S., & Gonyo, K. (n.d.). Relationships between executive functions and language variables . Retrieved from A Plattsburgh State University of New York web site : file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/1011_Hungerford_Suzanne%20(1).pdf

  • Jovanovic, A. (4 April , 2019). 25 activities to improve your child’s executive functioning. Retrieved from A Parenting Pod web site:

  • The Understood Team. (n.d.). Understanding executive functioning issues. Retrieved from A Understood web site :

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