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Is Autism Linked to Language Processing Disorders?

June 22, 2021


If your child is diagnosed with autism and has language processing difficulties, these may be one of the first symptoms you want to address with treatment or interventions. You quickly realize just how frustrated your child is, with meltdowns as a testament to unexpressed emotions.

Is Autism Linked to Language Processing Disorders?

We can only try to understand how frustrating it must be for an autistic child struggling with expressive language:

“Please be patient with my limited vocabulary. It’s hard for me to tell you what I need when I don’t know the words to describe my feelings. I may be hungry, frustrated, frightened or confused but right now those words are beyond my ability to express. Be alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation or other signs that something is wrong.”

— Ellen Notbohm, author of international bestseller Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew.

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According to researcher Diane Williams, your child with autism is likely to have difficulty processing language, even if they are verbal and high functioning. Studies suggest noticeable differences in the way people with autism process language compared to neurotypical individuals.

ASD vs LPD: unsettling similarities

When looking for information to help your child process language in a way that facilitates better social communication, you may find the similarities between autism and a language processing disorder a bit unsettling.

You may read about children who were diagnosed with autism because their language processing deficits were mistakenly attributed to an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). On the other hand, children who display borderline autism symptoms may be (mistakenly) diagnosed with a language disorder or auditory processing disorder as their symptoms appear too mild to fit the criteria for ASD.

A diagnosis of ASD or a language processing disorder should only be made by a professional. This is crucial as the symptoms of language disorders can mimic those of ASD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In this article I’ll discuss what language processing disorders (LPD) are and I’ll explore the link between LPD and autism. Language processing disorders are often classified and associated with auditory processing disorders, in this regard the similarities and distinction between the two will be investigated. Lastly some suggestions to address language processing difficulties in children with autism will be discussed.

What is a language processing disorder?

To get an idea of what people with a language processing disorder may experience, the example of arriving in a foreign country is often used. You may undertake an introductory course in the local language, you may have enough vocabulary to get by—but join a party of locals, conversing fast with a few colloquial expressions thrown in, and you can imagine yourself wide-eyed and only capable of producing a: “Huh?”

Alternatively, language practitioners say that frustrating feeling of not being able to name a word, even though it’s on the tip of your tongue is a constant reality for those struggling with the processing of language.

A language processing disorder is characterized by a difficulty in receiving, recognizing, and understanding language. This kind of language disorder could also involve deficits in language expression. A person with a language processing disorder may therefore have trouble processing receptive language (what others say) but it may also affect how that person expresses him or herself (expressive language).

People with a language processing disorders (LPD) have no difficulties with hearing, intellect, or even certain aspects of language; their deficits lie in the processing of language, in other words the impairment is related to how their brain processes or interprets language.

If you suspect language processing difficulties to be the cause of your child’s social communication challenges, look out for behaviors like:

  • Limited vocabulary and difficulty acquiring new words
  • Frustrated in expressing him or herself, emotions or ideas
  • Use of many fillers like “uh” as he/she struggles to find the right words
  • He or she may be able to draw or point to an object but struggle to name it

The definition of LPD is important, especially when it comes to distinguishing the disorder from auditory processing disorders—the terms are sometimes used interchangeably when they are in fact distinct conditions.

Auditory processing disorders (APD)

Auditory processing disorder—sometimes referred to as central auditory processing disorder—can be attributed to deficits experienced when an individual processes audible signals; however such difficulties should not arise because of intellectual or hearing impairments. Children with auditory processing disorders may hear well, but their brains do not interpret or process sound or words appropriately.

Children with central auditory processing disorder may have deficits relating to the processing of specific auditory stimulus, for example in a class with a lot of background noise their auditory processing deficits may render it impossible to distinguish noise from speech.

Only an audiologist can diagnose APD and parents should consult with one if they suspect their child may have deficits in processing auditory input. Your child may show anxiety when he/she has to listen when there is background noise (parents often see this as “hearing difficulty” in noisy environments), he/she may have difficulty following verbal directions, or you observe how most of his/her auditory deficits disappear when a room quiets down.


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Difference between LPD and APD

In a young child it can be complex to distinguish an auditory processing disorder from a language processing disorder. Adding to the confusion is the fact that a child could have both disorders. When attempting to distinguish between the two conditions, it is important to recognize that some components of language processing are not dependent on auditory signals.

In this regard, examples like the processing of non verbal language, processing of written language, and the manner in which those with severe hearing loss process language should be noted. LPDs and APDs can be diagnosed together or independently but, as both disorders involve deficits in processing, language processing disorders are often classified as a type of auditory processing disorder.

Language processing disorders are not only associated with central auditory processing disorders; language disorders are also frequently linked to autism.

Autism and language processing disorders

A study (Marco et al., 2011) reviewing the atypical sensory based features of autism, suggests atypical brain activity in processing auditory stimuli for those on the spectrum. The study brought up some interesting points concerning autistic behaviors and how this may relate to auditory processing. The author’s example of a child with autism covering his/her ears to bening sounds like the vacuum cleaner, introduces the authors’ question of whether such unusual behavior may be a cause of atypical auditory processing.

This again points to the importance of seeking professional diagnosis by an expert who takes all factors and your child’s history into consideration—in the above example the child covering his/her ears to the sound of the vacuum cleaner could have a sensory processing disorder, autism or an auditory processing disorder (or even all three).

While you may require a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, audiologist and speech-language pathologist to correctly diagnose your child’s language processing disorder, an important factor to remember is that autism spectrum disorders have core deficits that go beyond language processing difficulties.

Autism’s core symptoms include deficits in social interaction in addition to restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. While ASD’s core criteria includes social communication deficits which could include language disorders; a child with a language processing disorder will not meet the restricted and repetitive behavior necessary for an autism diagnosis.

Addressing processing deficits in autistic children

To help autistic children receive, express and process language more appropriately, their unique way of thinking should be kept in mind. For example, some (not all) children on the spectrum are visually inclined, and may process language concepts better if presented visually. For these autistic children auditory teaching may not be appropriate and a visual approach may facilitate learning and acquiring language skills (Evans & Tissot, 2003).

To develop language more efficiently in a child with autism, preconceived ideas like establishing eye contact to indicate interest should be abandoned. Instead parents can attempt to incorporate their autistic child’s strengths and special interests to motivate better language use.

A speech-language pathologist is in the best position to take cognitive atypicalities into consideration when addressing language deficits in an autistic child. At home, parents can work on language development by creating functional language learning opportunities.

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In conclusion

While language processing difficulties are almost always present for people with autism, these difficulties are not exclusive to an autism spectrum disorder. Language processing disorders and auditory processing disorders can exist together or independently—parents who observe any sort of language disorder should not hesitate to have their child diagnosed by a professional.

References:

Marco, E. J., Hinkley, L. B., Hill, S. S., & Nagarajan, S. S. (2011). Sensory processing in autism: a review of neurophysiologic findings. Pediatric research, 69(5 Pt 2), 48R–54R. https://doi.org/10.1203/PDR.0b013e3182130c54

Notbohm, E. (2012). Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew: Updated and Expanded Edition. Chapter 5. (Zysk, V. Ed.) Future Horizons

Tissot, Catherine & Evans, Roy. (2003). Visual Teaching Strategies for Children with Autism. Early Child Development and Care. 173. 425-433. 10.1080/0300443032000079104.

Williams, Diane. (2012). Language Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Insights from Neuroscience. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education. 19. 98. 10.1044/lle19.3.98.

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