By Elizabeth Watson, Speech Pathologist
One of the most common questions asked by parents with a child on the autism spectrum is ‘when will my child start to talk?’
There is no one answer to this question, in fact, there are about as many answers to this question as there are individuals on the autism spectrum.
The answer is: ‘it depends…’
Every child is different, and therefore every parent will have different goals and expectations when asking, ‘when will my child start to talk?’
The first thing I usually like to make sure of is that we mean the same thing by ‘start to talk’:
- Do you mean babbling sounds because your child is mainly silent?
- Do you mean communicating with eye contact, gesture, or guiding you to show what they want because your child doesn’t try to communicate at all?
- Do you mean saying words or sentences that are meaningful?
- Do you mean chatting and having conversations with you, telling you their wants, needs, thoughts and feelings?
When I refer to ‘talking’, I mean saying meaningful (rather than echoed) words and sentences. The development of meaningful speech is what will lead to your child telling you their wants, needs, thoughts and feelings.
Learning to ‘talk’ isn’t just one step, but many.
Communication takes many forms and typically develops as a child does – it is much more than just talking. It is made up of understanding (receptive language) and expressing (expressive language). Speech is what we say, but ‘language’ is the content of the message and the understanding of what others are saying.
Understanding doesn’t just happen all of a sudden. It starts with behaviours like listening, turning towards sound, stopping when their name is called or quieting to adult sounds and then eventually understanding the meaning of what others say.
The first signs of expressive development that parents hear are babbling sounds and syllables, which often makes them think that words are close.Crying is an even earlier example of expressive development. Crying expresses meaning, even if we can’t always guess what that meaning is. Babies use crying to express pleasure and displeasure or for attention. Infants express themselves using gesturing, vocalising while gesturing, sharing attention to an object with an adult by holding it up and looking from the adult to the object. They practise early conversation by taking turns babbling and exchanging gestures with you.
When children understand a few words, maybe family names, pets or common objects, they might start saying ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ and you will be over the moon – it sounds like talking! It almost is, but initially, those words don’t actually have meaning to a baby. They need your reaction to turn the sounds into words with meaning. Then babbling starts to increase noticeably and is often used to share their interest in an item with you. Soon, a few other words appear and at about the same time, toddlers are trying hard to be understood – they really want to communicate with you!
A few months later there is an explosion of play gestures, such as pretending to feed you or brush a toy’s hair. This link with play is very important as pretend play and language development have strong links.
Pretend play levels actually precede language development steps. For example, if a child is using object substitution this is considered to be using symbols – and words are also symbols, they stand for things. Object situation is where one item is used as another e.g. a box for a toy bed or your child hands you the car keys to indicate they want to go to the car.
As they get older, infants gradually understand more words and longer sentences and questions. Each step in understanding is followed by increasing ability to use words and allows them to share meaning with you. The child can question, comment, reject, answer and recount events and say how they feel. They no longer have to cry to tell you what they want – they become more effective communicators.
However, some children develop differently – they may speak lots but it isn’t meaningful (like echolalia). Sometimes children may have language but have problems saying words, so they can’t express themselves verbally. These are important markers that indicate the need for specialised help from a Speech Pathologist.
Here are some important skills that develop before true ‘talking’ starts:
- Cause and Effect – understanding that one action makes another occur. This could be as simple as pushing a button on a toy to make a noise.
- Tool use – that’s using an object as a tool. Something like pulling a blanket towards themselves to retrieve an object on it that they can’t reach.
- Social tool use – similar to tool use but the help is a person e.g. handing a container to an adult to open.
- Communicative intent – your child won’t talk to you before they show that they really want to communicate!
- Joint Attention means sharing interest. The child wants you to share what they are interested in by picking it up and giving it to you, or by showing then giving. They may hold up the item and look to see if you are looking at it too – this is a 3 way looking between you, them and the object. Some level of eye gaze is important in this process because the child wants to know where your eyes are looking.
- Children learn to talk by imitating, so take note if they imitate gestures and sounds they hear.
- Awareness of people talking, shown by turning towards sound. This shows they are listening and are aware of others, which is the beginning of learning that communication is between people.
- Although they may understand you, your child won’t move towards talking unless they practise sounds. This is called vocal play and is playing by making speech sounds or babbling.
Beginning communication takes forms other than speech, so usually children use gestures such as waving, pointing or reaching before they talk.
When looking at these steps, have a think at where your child might fit in developmentally. Are they practising babbling or using gestures? Do they share using joint attention?
Starting to talk depends on:
- Adequate hearing
- Mastery of the prerequisites mentioned above
- Having no physical or neurological barriers to producing speech sounds
- A social desire to communicate
No matter where your child is up to on their developmental journey there are a number of different activities and ways you can begin to promote early talking. Remember, ‘talking’ isn’t just one step, it is many.
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