Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder)

Children and adults with autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, have problems with communication and social skills. Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, can help.

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About Autism

Every person with autism is different. All will have problems with communication and social skills but not in the same way. Autism is a spectrum disorder because it can cause mild problems, severe problems, or something in between.

People with autism may focus on one topic, like trains or a television show. They may have some behaviors that they do over and over, like flipping objects or smelling things. They may not like changes in their schedule or changes in the food they eat. Some may talk well but not be able to make friends. Others may not talk at all.

Signs of Autism

Does your child have autism? He will have problems in the areas of communication, social skills, and behavior. He also might not like to eat different foods. Your child may also need help with fine and gross motor skills, like writing and running.

Communication

Your child may have trouble understanding, talking, reading, or writing. You might notice that he has stopped saying words that he used to say. Your child may have problems:

  • Understanding and using gestures, like pointing or waving.
  • Following directions.
  • Understanding and using words.
  • Having conversations.
  • Learning to read or write. Some children with autism read early but do not understand what they read, called hyperlexia.

Your child also may do the following things:

  • Repeat words he just heard or words he heard days or weeks earlier, called echolalia (pronounced ek-o-lay-lee-a).
  • Sound robotic or talk in a singsong voice.
  • Have tantrums instead of telling you what he wants.

Social Skills

Your child may have problems relating to other people. She may seem to be in her own world. It may be hard for her to

  • focus with someone on the same object or event, called joint attention;
  • play with others and share toys;
  • understand how others feel; or
  • make and keep friends.

Behaviors

Your child may

  • have trouble changing from one activity to the next;
  • flap his hands, rock, spin, or stare;
  • get upset by certain sounds;
  • like only a few foods; or
  • have an interest in only a few things. He may talk about only one topic or keep staring at one toy.

Eating

Your child may only eat certain foods. She may not like anything lumpy or crunchy. Or, she may refuse to try new foods. She may do this to act out, or she may not like the feel of different textures in her mouth.

Causes of Autism

Autism is a lifelong problem. You may not know what caused it in your child. Some possible causes include the following:

  • Genetic problems or syndromes.
  • Severe infections that can cause brain damage. Examples are meningitis and encephalitis.
  • Problems during pregnancy. Your child may have been exposed to an illness like rubella or to harmful chemicals.

You may have an older child, cousin, or other family member with autism. There are cases where autism runs in families.

Testing for Autism

You should have your child tested by someone who knows about autism. Your child may see different doctors, like a pediatrician or neurologist. She may see physical and occupational therapists, developmental specialists, and others. You may take your child to an SLP first to test social and communication skills. SLPs may also look at how your child eats. The SLP may be the first person to tell you that your child has autism.

The most important information about your child will come from you. You can tell the SLP about what your child does well and where she has problems. The SLP will use different tests and watch how your child plays. The SLP may also want to talk to your child’s teacher or others who know about her.

The SLP can help figure out if your child has autism or a social (pragmatic) communication disorder. All children with autism have social communication problems. But, not all children with these problems have autism. Knowing which one your child has will help the SLP find the best treatment.

Treatments for People With Autism

There is no known cure for autism. You should get your child help when he is young. Ask about local early intervention and preschool programs. These programs can help your child at home when he is young and then at school. Your child may work with different professionals, such as a

  • SLP;
  • physical therapist;
  • occupational therapist;
  • dietitian;
  • developmental specialist;
  • psychologist; and
  • others, as needed.

It is also important to have your child's hearing tested to make sure he does not have a hearing loss.

The SLP's Role

The SLP plays an important role in your child’s treatment. The SLP will work with your child on social skills and communication. These are the areas where your child will have the most trouble.

An SLP may work with your child at home, in school, or in an office. Your child might work with the SLP alone or in small groups. Small groups allow your child to practice skills with other children.

The SLP will help your child understand, talk, read, and write. The SLP will work with your child on social skills and behavior. They also work with children who do not talk at all. An SLP may help your child

  • pay attention to what others do and not just to what she wants to do;
  • play and get along with others;
  • understand and use gestures, like pointing; and
  • follow directions.

An SLP will help your child understand and use words. Your child may learn to

  • ask and answer questions;
  • ask for help;
  • take turns in a conversation; and
  • start or stop a conversation.

SLPs also work on reading and writing. Your child may learn to

  • look at books and tell stories and
  • write letters, words, and sentences.

Your child may need other ways to talk. Augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, helps children who cannot talk or are very hard to understand. You should use AAC at home and when you go out. It’s not just for school. AAC includes

  • sign language;
  • gestures;
  • pictures, photos, objects, or videos;
  • written words; and
  • computers, tablets, or other electronic devices.

AAC can help many children with autism. AAC may even help children learn to talk.

SLPs also work with children with feeding problems. Children with autism may not like the way foods look, taste, or smell. They may not like how some foods feel in their mouth. Your child may:

  • Refuse new foods.
  • Not want to eat crunchy foods or soft foods. She may only eat foods that are the same color.
  • Eat a limited number of foods.

An SLP can help your child accept new foods.

People with autism can learn better social and communication skills. SLPs can help. To find a speech-language pathologist near you, visit ProFind.

See ASHA information for professionals on the Practice Portal’s Autism Spectrum Disorder page.

Other Resources

This list does not include every website on this topic. ASHA does not endorse the information on these sites.