Autism Awareness Month

How Autism Affects Communication in Young Children

Mom holds son with ASDWhen does communication start?

Communication begins long before we learn to talk. In the first few months of life, babies show their interest in communicating by listening intently to the sound of the human voice, looking at people's faces when they talk, and then engaging in back-and-forth babbling games with their parents. These exchanges of sounds and smiles between an infant and his caregiver are the baby's first conversations, even though he has never uttered a word. Around the first year of life, infants imitate their parents’ actions and single words. Then they start to use their first words on their own and, once they have many single words, children start to use little two-word sentences.

How does autism affect communication? 

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, communication development happens differently and more slowly. Because of the sensory challenges associated with the disorder, children with autism might seem more interested in environmental sounds, like the whirring of a fan or vaccuum than in the sound of people talking. They may seem distracted or even seem not to hear what people say.

No one knows exactly why, but children with ASD do not naturally imitate in the same way as other children. They either don’t imitate at all or they imitate whole sentences (called echoes) without always understanding the meaning of the things they are saying.  Among children who don’t use echoes, first words are often delayed and are sometimes unusual (like numbers or letters of the alphabet).

High-functioning or mild autism and communication

Children with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome may have an extensive vocabulary and use long sentences. But when it comes to social communication, much more is required than that the ability to use words. Body language, facial expressions, eye gaze, tone of voice – non-verbal cues like these can often tell us more about what people think and feel than the words they use. To be successful communicators, children need to know how to interpret and respond to these cues, and how to use these cues themselves.

Most children begin paying attention to non-verbal cues as infants when they search their parents’ faces for support, acknowledgement and cues to what’s going on in their parents’ mind. If they see mom looking at a bottle, for example, they figure out that mom’s going to offer that bottle to them. But for children with Asperger syndrome, mild autism or social communication difficulties, the ability to “tune in” to the thoughts and feelings of others often does not develop in the same way or at the same pace as other children.

Difficulty empathizing and seeing other points of view can make having two-sided conversations a huge challenge for these children. Because they often do not know what to say or do in social situations, these children can find it difficult to make friends and play with their peers.

For more information about communication in children with autism, read our article “A Closer Look at Social Communication Difficulties of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”.

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