Language Impairment in Autism 

autism crayonsThough autism spectrum disorder (asd) affects children in different ways, many children with autism will demonstrate language impairment. In fact, one of the first signs of autism is failure to develop language (Mody & Belliveau, 2013). Language development in autism may range from being nonverbal, to limited speaking skills, to having an extensive vocabulary.


My Son Nonverbal 

My son, Liam, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at two and a half years old. Though frightening, his diagnosis did not come as a shock. I recognized that something was different with his development way before deciding to undergo diagnostic assessment. For instance, Liam never went through the different stages of walking. At eight months old, he simply got up and walked. Sure, I was shocked but prouder than anything. And, though no longer a toe walker, he was a toe walker and runner for a long time. There were other signs. Namely, lack of eye contact, social impairment, and language impairment. With language being his biggest deficit.

In addition to Liam’s other challenges, he was considered nonverbal. His deficits with receptive and expressive language was most troubling. It resulted in many fearful questions. How would his language impairment affect him long term? Would he ever be able to communicate his needs? What about his ability to function? How would he be able to comprehend what others are saying? As one can image, I was terrified for him. But once I was done with being afraid, I got to work. After all, he was diagnosed early. And early diagnosis meant he could receive early interventions. And early interventions meant he had the best chance for improved outcomes.

Teaching My Nonverbal Son To Talk

Initially, Liam received aggressive speech, occupational, and Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. He does not have concerning behavioral issues per se. ABA therapy was to lessen his eloping and problematic and dangerous climbing habits. He was enrolled in ABA therapy and occupational therapy for about a year. Speech therapy he continues. Initially, his speech therapy sessions were three times weekly with each session lasting for an hour. Speech therapy was privately paid and therefore costly. Due to cost, he no longer receives privately paid speech therapy. However, he does receive speech therapy, in the school setting, two times weekly with each session lasting 30 minutes. If you live in Broward County, FL, see the  Broward Connections Guidebook for a list of interventional services. Most resources listed are free!

Interventional services are costly. Especially for a single parent like me. As a result, I invested time to learn speech, occupational, and behavioral techniques for at home use. In other words, the techniques learnt through research and experience of raising my son, are effectively being used in the home setting for his continuous learning. I have also taken on the challenge to become a certified autism specialist. This will provide additional training for in home use and lesson our autism cost.

From Nonverbal to Verbal 

Liam is now seven years old and is no longer considered nonverbal. Though improved, he still has great challenges with receptive and expressive language. Liam has transformed from not saying anything, to repeating whatever he is asked. He has gone from not understanding what is being said or asked, to understanding most of what is being said to or asked of him. For the most part, he responds in action appropriately. We continue to do a lot of modeling, and simple games to build his vocabulary and comprehension. For instance, one game he enjoys is the shoe box word game. He also loves music, so we play a lot of sing along songs. We have even bought a piano to encourage his singing. He still prefers to show his request. So, encouraging him to verbalize his wants is a daily task.

Teaching my son with autism is one of my favorite tasks. However, his short attention and hyperactivity can make lesson time a bit challenging. Accordingly, we schedule regular breaks between lessons. Breaks are usually short and include doing something he enjoys. For instance, he enjoys the shoe box game. The picture cards build his vocabulary. While, placing the card in the slender box hole builds his fine motor skills. I have included simple instructions on how to create the shoe box picture word game.

How to create the shoebox game;

  • Get a shoe box
  • Decorate the shoebox to your liking
  • Create an opening to the top-middle of the decorated box. The opening should be just big enough to fit the card
  • Use flash cards (picture on front with identifying word on back)
  • Ask your child to repeat word, then place card in the box

Due to my son’s short attention, I usually do five to ten picture cards at a time. I also give a reward after every session.



Mody, M., & Belliveau, J. W. (2013). Speech and language impairments in autism: Insights from behavior and neuroimaging. North American journal of medicine & science, 5(3), 157–161. doi:10.7156/v5i3p157

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