Speech Therapy for Autistic Kids

by Suzanna Pillay

WHEN a child does not talk at that normal age and seems to be in his or her own zone, speech therapy may hold the key to communication. 

EIGHT-year-old Keane, like any ordinary boy, loves potato chips but he isn't able to tell you that. Instead he lets you know this by pointing to the chips.

Keane is autistic and, like most autistic children, uses hand gestures to communicate wants and needs, as opposed to vocalising them.

After undergoing speech therapy for several years, he has made significant improvements and can now put his request in simple words, as opposed to just gesturing, says his mother Gene Ng, 36.

"Keane doesn't socialise much and is an introvert. He only communicates if he wants something and only answers if you ask questions. He used to gesture when he wanted something but now he can make a request in words. For example, if he wants to eat a potato chip, he will say "I want eat".

Keane has three other siblings. His younger brother, Ethan, 3, (Ng's third child) is also autistic.

However, despite having speech difficulties like Keane, Ethan has a milder form of autism and is more outgoing. He also interacts well with his other siblings, says Ng.

He has also benefited from speech therapy which has helped him to identify and label things (associate words with things) as opposed to using only hand gestures to communicate.

"Sometimes, when they are throwing what you think is a tantrum, they are actually trying to communicate with you. Speech therapy teaches them to speak up and also makes it easier to communicate with them," she says.

Similarly, Peggy Chai's autistic daughter has also benefited from speech therapy.

"When she turned 4 last year, she had yet to learn to talk. But within a year (of seeing the therapist), we could see a difference," says Chai.

It took half a year to get results, with a lot of extra effort from her and her husband to work on exercises with their child.

"Some speech therapists give you homework to do at home until the next appointment. You can't make progress if you just rely on the weekly sessions with the therapist. We work with our daughter at home every day, with role play and other activities that the therapist shows us and these have paid off."

Shine Guidance Centre speech and language therapist Dorothy Lee says: "One of the biggest challenges autistic people have in communicating is in relating with other people because their awareness of people is not there."

Basically, she says parents realise that their child can have a learning disability when an important milestone like talking is not reached.

"More often than not, a child with autism is not communicating or engages in very little non-verbal communication. Getting the child to talk and understand what is being said is the object of speech therapy," she says.

Speech therapy is suitable not only for those with special needs, like autistic children but also for those who have difficulty in communicating and have not become verbal yet, says Lee.

She has worked with both autistic kids and delayed learners (kids with learning disabilities).

"They need to learn about speech and language, how to construct sentences and phrases. Mainly, they have difficulties like articulation, comprehension and receptiveness to language. It's all about understanding what is said to you," she says.

But, in order for a child to learn and communicate, the basic building blocks of communication must be set. "Some children don't even have the skill of listening, which makes it difficult to teach them and for them to learn."

Speech affects their ability to play and interact with other people and this affects the quality of family life to a certain degree. The focus is to get the child to be as independent as possible, comfortable with face-to-face interaction and learn how to interact and respond with others.

She says: "Goals are set for each child. Each child has his own learning style and personality. Sometimes we forget that children with special needs are just like us. Each session works on these goals, looks at the child's potential and tries to draw it out."

Most do acquire speech but progress depends on the individual. Starting speech therapy while the child is still young is better because it means easier intervention and a better prognosis.

"Their brains are still developing. Therapy intervenes in such a way to make the right connection. Young children also generally have formed fewer negative behavioural habits that can interfere with learning."

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