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Speech Delay? Language Delay? Autism? Let’s Talk About It!

Speech and language are the skills we use to communicate with others and children acquire these skills at his or her own pace. If you start to notice that your child is not reaching speech and language milestones at the same time as their peers or their siblings, it may leave you wondering “should I be concerned?” While speech and language delays are often confused and used interchangeably, there are distinguishing characteristics.

Speech refers to how children verbalize, articulate, and manipulate the sounds that are used in words. For example, difficulty producing high frequency sounds like /r/ and /s/ can make it challenging to be understood by a listener. Speech delays can be due to motor planning difficulties which affects their ability to coordinate their articulators (lips, jaw, and tongue) to make speech sounds correctly. Delays may also be developmental in nature, meaning your child is following typical speech patterns but at a slower rate than his/her peers. A speech disorder means that your child makes mistakes that are not considered “typical” in terms of sound errors or patterns.

Speech disorders and language delays are actually two different things! A language delay differs from a speech delay in that it directly affects the content of what a child says, not the sounds they produce. This is referred to as an expressive language disorder. Children with expressive language disorder may be able to pronounce sounds and words perfectly, but have trouble structuring them to effectively communicate their ideas. A receptive language delay can affect how children process and understand information. They often have difficulty understanding oral directions and learning new vocabulary. Children with a receptive language delay often have difficulties understanding not only spoken language, but written and gestural language as well.

A child may need support from a speech language pathologist if they are demonstrating a speech delay or a speech disorder to support acquisition of their speech sounds.

The Difference Between a Speech and Language Delay and Autism

All children develop at different rates, especially in terms of communication. While most children start using basic verbal communication within their first 1-2 years of life, some children are referred to as late talkers. Language development, even before a child’s first words are spoken, generally follows a series of stages. In their infant and toddler years children start cooing and making babbling sounds which is their first attempts at verbal communication! They also use a variety of nonverbal language to communicate their needs and establish strong social connections, such as making eye contact, pointing, and gesturing. Overtime, children begin to learn sounds and use them to form their first words to name and request. Eventually they start to combine words together in phrases and acquire more complex language skills.

A child that is speech or language delayed typically follows the same developmental patterns as their peers, but reaches language milestones at a slower rate. There are also other developmental issues that can cause speech delays in children. The main difference between a speech/language delay and autism-related speech delays is that children who are true “late talkers” or delayed, still attempt to engage and communicate/interact with others. For example, they might make sounds, gesture, lead, point, and use other types of body language to get what they want. A autistic child may present with a combination of characteristics in the areas of language, social skills, sensory needs, and repetitive behaviors. These deficits can disrupt their ability to build meaningful social connections and relationships with family members, peers, and other people in their lives. If your child isn’t yet verbally communicating, but is actively engaging with people and communicating in these other ways, it is unlikely that their speech delay is due to autism.

When to seek professional evaluation

For children who are not developing early speech and language skills, or those who seem to be falling behind their peers, it’s important to seek a professional evaluation.

A developmental screening and evaluation can help you determine the reason behind the delay and if necessary, help develop a treatment plan for your child! If you would like to set up an evaluation for your child we would be happy to help you! Please reach out to us here!

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