In the last generation, people with autism have, as a group, gone from 50 percent non-verbal to 25 percent non-verbal. This is primarily due to the development of effective early interventions that focus on speech production. However, more options are needed for the people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) who do not learn how to speak. Several researchers in the field think that the next phase of interventions for non-verbal children needs to focus on motor skills and joint attention. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, addressing these problems may provide the key to stimulating speech for non-verbal children with ASD.

A study with data from 535 children with autism from the Simons Simplex Collection—an autism registry by SFARI’s parent organization—found that interventions for non-verbal children with ASD, on the whole, do work. This particular analysis included children who were not using two-word phrases at age four. Using various interventions, by age eight 70% of children had mastered two-word phrases and nearly half were fluent speakers. This indicates that more ASD children are developing these skills than previously thought.

Another research team, led by Ericka Wodka, neuropsychologist with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kenneddy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, found that children with low social impairment and high non-verbal intelligence are most likely to master speech. Wodka explained that another piece of the non-verbal puzzle needs to be examining children’s motivations when learning to speak.

Nancy Brady, assistant professor of speech, language, hearing sciences at the University of Kansas is working with the issue of determining the intelligence of people who cannot speak. It is typically assumed that children who are non-verbal are less intelligent, but in fact, non-verbal children’s intelligence is varied—some non-verbal children can read. Brady is developing the Communication Complexity Scale which would evaluate children’s communicative skills based on factors that include gestures and more.

These researchers have also investigated ways to treat non-verbal children with ASD. A popular option today is equipping children with iPads that have speech-generating applications. Unpublished research from Connie Kasari, professor of human development and psychology at UCLA, shows that minimally verbal children who used a speech-generating device early in their treatment are more socially communicative after six months than those who started with the device later.

Karasi also discussed a system called JASPER, which emphasizes joint attention and play skills—skills that go hand-in-hand with speech development. This system capitalizes on what many children already do–pointing, looking, and showing objects—and links the concepts to speech. She also stated that even if some people rely on communication devices for the long term, that would be a success.

This research is publised in the journals Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience (McCleery, et. al., 2013) and Pediatrics (Wodka, et. al., 2013).

Learn more about how iLs works with autism on our autism page.

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