Severe language delays early in the life of a child with autism can be
overcome, especially if a child exhibits non-verbal intelligence.
A new study that looked at speech delays in children with autism spectrum
disorders found that 70% of children who were not stringing words together into
even the simplest of phrases by age 4 went on to do so by age 8, and in some
cases, even achieved fluent speech.
"Autism spectrum disorders" is an umbrella term for neurodevelopmental
conditions ranging from Asperger's syndrome to severe autism. Hallmarks of these
conditions include problems with social interaction and repetitive
The findings, published online offer hope, said lead author Dr Ericka Wodka,
a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Kennedy Krieger
Institute's Center for Autism and Related Disorders, in Baltimore.
"The study gives doctors and parents a sense that when these delays persist -
when a child presents at age six or seven without phrase speech - they still have
growth opportunity," Wodka said. "There's still a lot of hope that these children can go on to gain meaningful
How the study was done
The scientists evaluated data on more than 500 children with an autism
spectrum disorder who were part of a national multi-site study that involved
complete evaluations on every child.
"Our data are based on actual measurements of current functioning and parent
interviews, not chart review," Wodka said.
As toddlers, none of the children in the study had achieved "phrase speech,"
the ability to put together more than two or three words to communicate - to say
basic sentences such as, "I want juice," for example.
Demographics - including parent income and education level, and child
psychiatric characteristics - were not associated with whether a child with
language delay attained phrase speech, Wodka said. Repetitive behaviours, such
as hand-flapping, were not linked with delayed speech either.
Strong predictors of a child's ability to go on to develop phrase or fluent
speech skills included his or her non-verbal IQ and being less impaired
socially, Wodka said.
The size of the study lends the findings weight, said Dr Sarah Paterson, a
scientist in the Developmental Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Children's
Hospital of Philadelphia. Paterson conducts brain imaging and cognitive studies
of infants at risk for autism.
"There is a large number of children involved," Paterson said. "It's hard to
get a sample that big in an autism study and I think it gives us some insight
into what's happening with language."
Paterson said the results are not surprising. "I think the take-home message
is that, as we've thought for a long time, social skills and nonverbal
communication skills really are building blocks for language. Those who do have
those skills generally have better language than those who don't."
Parents need to keep the results in perspective, though, said another autism
Guide to goals
"Parents should be cautious about applying statistics from studies like these
to their individual child's outcome," said Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of
developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of
New York, in New Hyde Park.
Adesman said it's also important to note that although autism has to be
considered whenever evaluating a child with language delay, the majority of
children with language delay at age two or three don't have an autism spectrum
disorder. "That's an important point," he said. "This study wasn't looking at
severe language delay without diagnosis of autism."
Adesman said if children have good nonverbal communication skills - if they
use gestures to communicate even though they don't use words, for example, and
if they engage with people appropriately and are socially responsive - that
would suggest something other than autism spectrum disorder is the likely cause
of language delay.
Parents with concerns about their toddler's lack of language development can
ask their paediatrician about autism screening, or look for a community
resource. "Every child can get a free evaluation when language delay is
suspected," he said.
Wodka said she hopes the study findings will help guide parents and health
professionals who work with children with autism to set both language and
"What complicates issues for children with autism is that it's not purely a
language disorder," she said. "It's a communication disorder, and it's important
to consider the child's intellectual level as well as the social issues."
Visit the US National Institute of Mental Health to learn more about autism