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What obstacles do autistic children need to overcome in learning to use language conventionally?

As I see it there are four main obstacles impeding autistic speech. 1. Very young autistic children are often “word deaf;”109   2. They lack concern for meaning; 3. They don’t like to have to think much, especially about what they are saying and, 4. They don’t understand the process of communication, the pragmatics of carrying on a conversation. These problems are interrelated in the way they affect autistic speech, but for the purpose of clarification I will deal with them separately.

What factors contribute to early word deafness?

When I say that autistic children are “word deaf,” I don’t mean that they don’t hear words. I mean that, when they are very young, they are not very interested in nor do they always understand words as words. If the process of sensory integration is not being followed through to completion, so that information from the eyes and ears is processed and interpreted smoothly and conventionally, they might simply fail to ‘tune in’ to the right auditory input. Or they might find it difficult to ‘tune in’ because their hearing is over or under selective. 

Temple Grandin writes that her ability to process and attend to one voice against the background of another was severely impaired. It was difficult for her to screen out one voice and listen to the other.110  When adults spoke directly to her as a child, she could understand them. But when they talked among themselves it sounded like gibberish.111

Temple goes on to say that her ears were like microphones, picking up all sounds with equal intensity.112  In fact, for most very young children with autism, speech has no more significance than other noise, and many are more attentive and responsive to environmental sounds than to words. They often find rhythm and music preferable to speech because the mathematical relationships of the frequencies or pitch are more pleasing and harmonious to their immature auditory perception.113

Another explanation for early word deafness might be that spoken language simply isn’t salient or relevant to children who feel little or no desire to communicate; children who lack the ability to associate language with the larger picture of emotional expressiveness and social interaction.

Also, due to their gestalt processing style, many children with autism are unaware of the differentiation of words early on. Because they do not discern the separate parts of a sentence, individual words and word combinations are never--or are belatedly-analyzed and understood in and of themselves. This early tendency to process sentences as a whole, rather than as a grouping of separate words with distinct meanings, makes it very difficult for autistic children to acquire an expressive or receptive vocabulary. Many cannot pick individual words out of a sentence unless they see them written first.

How do autistic children overcome word deafness?

As they gain experience with their bodies and with tangible objects, and as they are exposed to pictures, children with autism begin to understand that things have names. They begin to attach meaning to some words and to ‘tune in’ to these words. The first words autistic children generally attend to are nouns and verbs, because they have visual referents. Then come letters and numbers, because of their predictability. Gradually, they begin to grasp adjectives, prepositions and relational words, as these too can be represented visually. 

At this point there is usually a big leap in receptive understanding, but expressive speech often remains awkward and rudimentary. It remains this way because the functional connecting words that are necessary to smooth it out are the hardest for children with autism to comprehend. There are no pictorial analogues for adverbs, articles or conjunctions.

Temple Grandin writes: “As a child I left out words such as “is,” “the” and it,” because they had no meaning by themselves. Similarly, words like “of” and “an” made no sense. Eventually, I learned to use these words properly because I mimicked (my parents) speech patterns.”114  For many autistics, my daughter included, these words only become recognizable as words after they learn to read and are able to recognize them in print.

How does the lack of concern for meaning or sense-making impact autistic speech?

In her book on autism, Uta Frith writes of an exercise in which groups of normal and autistic children were tested to recall a slowly read out string of words. The study revealed that autistic children not only recalled the end of the string better, regardless of whether it made sense or not, but that they were also less inclined than normal children to re-order the scrambled words into something more meaningful or grammatical.115  The implication is that sense-making is not a very significant factor in the way autistic children process information. Unlike the rest of us, they do not feel the need to put words or bits of information into some relevant, coherent pattern or context.

The implications of this lack of concern for sense-making and coherence for language learning are obvious. How does one learn to properly order words in sentences if meaning cannot readily be applied to the sequencing? In other words, if I’d said to my young daughter, “Car ride go for a with Daddy do you want to,” she would have probably responded “Yes” without giving the scrambled phrasing of my question a second thought. As long as she heard the relevant words “car ride” and “Daddy,” the random sequence of the rest of the words was immaterial. 

Because young children with autism do not pay much attention to the meaningful sequence or grammatical structure of words in a sentence, learning to order their words and talk in coherent sentences is that much more difficult for them.

What might account for the lack of originality and spontaneity in autistic speech?

To quote Uta Frith, “the autistic child selectively attends to speech and translates heard speech proficiently into spoken speech. However, this processing seems to bypass the involvement of central thought.”116 Numerous factors play into the difficulty individuals with autism have in applying original thought to what they say. First, their predilection for sameness and predictability bolsters their reliance on rote language acquisition and expression. Also, their gestalt processing tendency makes it difficult for them to use words in a flexible, creative manner, because they often fail to assign meaning to the individual parts of the syntax.

Or it might be that the fragmented or dysfunctional neural circuitry within the autistic brain causes a breach between the auditory processing system and a central cognitive mechanism concerned with coherence and meaning. Bryna Siegel postulates that “in autistic children the growth of auditory memory (of sounds heard) proceeds at a fairly normal rate, but the ability to comprehend (digest information) lags behind.”117  

To compensate for lack of comprehension, children with autism use their stronger, more reliable auditory memories to try and make up for their processing limitations. This results in echolalia -- the rote repetition of the speech of others. Ms. Siegel postulates that children with autism engage in echolalia in order to better understand what is being said.118  They might also use echolalia because their brains are deficient in the complex interconnections that would allow them to apply more sophisticated thought processing to what they hear and say.

The combination of lack of concern for meaning and reluctance to combine thoughts and words explains most of the peculiarities of autistic speech--the stereotypic, rehearsed, situation specific language, the early omission or reversal of pronouns, the perseverative preoccupation with a narrow range of topics, the tendency to be excessively literal--the inability to say what others say in the manner in which they say it.

Why do some people with autism never develop speech?

Even when autistic children do begin to attend to speech, there is no direct link between hearing and talking. What we hear has to be properly integrated with other types of sensory input at the brain stem level and has to wend its way through many complex neural channels before it is finally conveyed to the temporal lobe auditory cortex where sounds are decoded and brought into our conscious awareness.119  

If auditory information is intermingling with distorted or un-modulated reticular and vestibular information right at the start, making sense out of that information -- understanding language -- would be a complicated and confusing business. And if the information wending its way up to the cortical auditory processing centers arrives skewed or incomplete, the odds of efficiently translating heard language into meaningful speech diminish further.

Temple Grandin writes that she was able to learn to speak because she could understand speech, but low-functioning autistics may never learn to speak because their brains cannot discriminate speech sounds, or because not enough speech gets through their dysfunctional auditory systems.120 She speculates that children who are echolalic may be at a midpoint on the sensory processing continuum. Enough recognizable speech gets through for them to be able to repeat what they hear, but not for them to be able to apply sense-making to their speech.121

In fact, there is considerably more to talking than merely having the vocabulary to do so. Talking requires not only the ability to command and initiate a motor act, it requires the ability to arrange the sequence of oral movements to make sounds form a word.122  Enunciating or articulating even simple words requires very precise placement of the mouth, tongue and lips and this requires good proprioception and sophisticated sensory processing. Talking also requires the ability to decide the order in which words should be uttered to make communicative sense.123  This is a lot to ask of children with significant processing difficulties, but particularly of children whose attention to the meaning and sequencing of individual words is significantly impaired.

For higher functioning autistics, those that have the mental capacity and motivation to overcome all the aforementioned obstacles, the problem may be simply that they don’t understand the purpose of speech. Jim Sinclair explains “speech therapy was just a lot of meaningless drills in repeating meaningless sounds for incomprehensible reasons. I had no idea that this could be a way to exchange meaning with other minds.”124

Even if they do appreciate the reasons for speech, some autistics might simply choose not to communicate. Because much of the sensory input to their brains does not complete the final association processing phase, their thought processes and patterns are too limited to allow them to tell stories. They cannot make things up. They might be able to relate what happens to them in their day but often see little reason to do so. They don’t ask questions because there is not much that they are interested in knowing. Indeed, I think the reason some bright, self-sufficient autistic children do not use language to communicate is because they are quite capable of getting their needs met without it. They do not need to make instrumental requests and, lacking a theory of mind and the ability to ruminate or empathize, they have little incentive to use speech for any social or interactive purpose. So they simply do not need to speak at all.

Why is carrying on a conversation the ultimate challenge for individuals with autism?

The simple answer is that they lack the basic instincts that make communication a natural process.125  In order to converse with unfamiliar others, people with autism have to struggle hard to order their words in a meaningful, coherent sequence and to think about what they are saying. Conversation requires commenting and commenting requires the application of original thought to speech. Comments cannot be practiced or rehearsed; they are subject to the whim or intent of the speaker. 

Also, conversational commenting often requires the use of lots of incidental or colloquial words in a variety of combinations. People with autism rarely feel comfortable enough with their language to use is so creatively and flexibly. Even if they do succeed in coming up with an original, spontaneous comment, they then have to come up with another one quick on its heels in response to the reply to their conversational overture, and this type of rapid verbal exchange strains the limits of their processing capabilities.

Autistic individuals also struggle with the protocol or non-verbal part of an expressive exchange; things such as using eye contact or gestures to punctuate meaning or signal agreement, understanding verbal reciprocity or turn-taking, knowing how to stay focused or elaborate on a topic or when to change it, being able to judge whether a listener is interested in what you are saying. As these pragmatic skills require social as well as linguistic competence, they are extremely difficult to master.126 

Also, most of what people with autism have to say revolves around themselves. This inherent egocentricity makes it very difficult for them to contribute to or share in topical conversations. They are seldom motivated to ask questions about anything or anyone else because they are simply not that interested.


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