Speech and language deficit is one of the defining characteristics of autism. We often hear the terms speech and language used interchangeably. They might mean the same thing when we are generally talking about communication. But the terms speech and language have different meanings.
SPEECH– refers to the actual sound of spoken language. Simply put, ability to speak or talk. It is oral form of communication. It requires using muscles of the tongue, lips, jaw and vocal tract in a coordinated way to produce sounds that make language.
LANGUAGE– refers to the system of words or symbols – written, spoken or expressed with gestures or body language- that is used to communicate meaning.
A child lacking speech can still use language, not in a spoken form but in written or gestural form. On the other hand, a child having speech can still struggle to use language effectively to communicate what he means. Thus, speech and language are mutually exclusive. Presence of one does not guarantee presence of other. Similarly, absence of one does not mean absence of other.
Just as speech and language differ, there is a difference between speech disorder and language disorder.
Speech disorder usually indicates someone has trouble producing sounds accurately.
Language disorder means difficulty in understanding the meaning of what is being said (receptive language deficit) or expressing their own thoughts (expressive language deficit).
Speech and language disorders can occur separately or some individuals may have both together.
Children with speech difficulties are far more likely to be noticed, and more likely to be referred to speech and language pathologist. While speech problems are easy to spot, we should be alert to subtle problems with language and communication in those with clear speech.
Speech and language by themselves are not useful unless they are used for communication.
COMMUNICATION is any behavior exchanged with another person that produces related or direct social rewards.
- A baby cries ….. mom gives milk. Crying is a behavior to communicate hunger.
- A small child points to apple when hungry, he gets apple. Pointing is a behavior to communicate wanting to eat apple.
- A little older child says ‘’apple’’ and gets apple. Saying apple is a behavior to communicate wanting to eat apple.
- Grown ups say ‘’I am hungry’’ to communicate wanting food.
In all of the above examples the individuals engaged in the act of communication. As a baby the communication was pre-intentional and then more intentional when they grow up. Simply put, as a baby we pre-intentionally communicate by crying.This behavior is not directed to another person. It requires people in our environment to interpret what we are communicating. Then we learn the power of gestures and words. This involves intentional directed communication towards another person.
For children on the spectrum, this understanding that communication produces positive outcomes maybe absent. It is common to see a 4 year old child with autism crying to ask for food. A 6 year old biting for not wanting to do work.
Thus, teaching communication to children on the spectrum is vital. They need to be taught the positive outcomes of communication. However, the misconception is that communication has to be spoken verbal speech. This can be challenging for kids with speech disorder. A child not having speech does not mean he doesn’t have anything to say. Imagine the frustration of wanting to communicate your thoughts, wants and needs to other people and not being able to do so.
Under these circumstances, waiting for the child to speak and eliminating other means of communication would result in increased frustration. Some kids can make some sounds or can speak but the speech is not clear should also be taught other means of communication for them to communicate effectively and clearly.
Other means of communication could be using pictures, signs, writing or typing.
Learning to communicate is considered to be an indispensable individual right and an essential life skill. Empower the child with the ability to communicate whether or not they have speech. No matter how many higher level or functional skills a child might have, if he or she cannot communicate his thoughts, all the other skills are a waste.
Communication is the real power.