Autism and Language Learning: Challenges and Considerations

Difficulties with learning language are typical symptoms of autism disorders. Children with autism experience problems due to complications with their memory and will normally learn to speak much later than other children.

To learn language, we all rely on two memory systems, namely declarative memory and procedural memory. The declarative system is responsible for our remembering specific words and associating visual images with those words. For example, we know that a dog is a hairy animal.

Procedural memory, on the other hand, refers to our ability to form words into sequences within language in a relevant order that is grammatically correct. At its most simplistic this may be represented as “dog bites man,” not “man bites dog.” It is believed although it remains a hypothesis that the procedural memory of autistic children is impaired. At the same time, their declarative memory may be unaffected.

The issues with very young children with autism is that often they are “word deaf”; for them the sound of language intermingles inconspicuously with the many other noises they hear within their individual environments. Often the beat of music is more prevalent to them due to their undeveloped auditory perception. Additionally, the spoken word is often irrelevant to autistic children who don’t instinctively possess a desire to communicate and are often perceived as living in “a world of their own.”

Where does this leave their ability to learn language?


Children with autism have what is referred to as a “gestalt” processing style. Literally translated, “gestalt,” means “whole.” Learning language in a gestalt style means learning it in terms of whole concepts or experiences, rather than through individual words or word sounds. If an autistic child hears the word “dog,” it represents the whole of his or her experience of a dog, from its bark and smell to the location of where one would normally see a dog.

While most children initially learn language through this process, autistic children don’t progress to the next analytical stage of learning . They are unable to differentiate between separate parts of sentences or distinguish between individual words. As they instinctively process sentences in this way, their ability to learn either an expressive or receptive vocabulary is impaired. Sometimes, it is only after an autistic child has seen a word written down that he or she can comprehend it as an individual word.

Consequently, autistic people as a whole lack the confidence or ability to use language creatively and struggle to apply their own ideas to speech. In addition, they lack the ability to incorporate and understand the non-verbal elements of conversations, such as eye contact or gestures.

The art of speech is a complex function requiring enunciation and articulation. With their limited thought processes, this art is beyond the ability of autistic children who may ultimately opt not to communicate with others. Even the brightest may feel there is little incentive to speak at all as they have no perception of using language for either social or interactive purposes. Likewise, some autistic children never develop an ability to speak, as for them there is no automatic link between hearing and speech.

While autistic children lack the thought processes that instinctively prompt us to communicate, language development can be stimulated. Long-term techniques need to be developed appropriately for individual children.

Options for Language Education of Autistic Children

The options for language education of autistic children include areas such as the following:


Reinforce Vocalization: Autistic children often learn to speak through echolalia, which is the repetition of words they have heard. Parents and teachers can encourage children to repeat the sounds and words they have heard by rewarding them each time they speak.

Prompts: An Applied Behavioral Analysis suggested by Wolf, Risley and Meesuses a system of prompts. Parents can begin by showing their child a toy and saying the full word together. Subsequently they reduce the level of their own prompt by simply saying the first letter and encouraging the child to say the rest. A continual positive response to the child is essential for long-term success. This is also referred to as prompts and fading.

Computers: The interpretation of facial expressions is inevitably difficult for autistic children . As an alternative to face-to-face learning, language development can be aided by computer programs which eliminate the need for such interpretation. The advantage is that they also provide immediate feedback. The interactive nature of these programs is beneficial to autistic children in their language development.

Pictorial Exchange: For autistic children who are unable to learn any form of vocalization, nonverbal methods such as sign language may help. Dr. Laura Schreibman of the American Psychological Association has emphasized the need to use pictorial representations in encouraging communication in autistic children, among others. A system called Picture Exchange Communication (PECS) has been proven to help in such cases. This method utilizes everyday pictures of familiar locations and objects which are presented to the autistic child. This enables him or her to select the object or activity required by handing over the card which represents it. Typical examples include pictures of bathrooms, bedrooms, cars and food. While they may be unable to articulate the actual activity, the concept of the “whole” experience is something they can grasp. If verbal language eventually develops over time, the images can still be used as a “prompt and fade” where necessary.

With time and dedication from both professionals and parents, long-term language development by autistic children can be encouraged.